Business as usual – that’s what the process and result of the recently held 13th general election in Malaysia seems to indicate. Once again the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition won the elections (albeit for the first time with less than 50 per cent of the popular vote). Once again after 2008 the opposition pact Pakatan Rakyat (PR) managed to reduce this majority against a number of odds in an electoral system based on competitive authoritarianism (Levitsky and Way 2002). PR’s more inclusive approach seems to have won over at least significant majorities in the urban and semi-urban areas, making it look like a shining example of how to transgress the deeply-entrenched ethnicised[1] structures of Malaysia’s political system.

However, as we have argued elsewhere, processes of ethnicisation are much more complex and manifest that they could simply be overcome by changing the political approach towards it (Holst 2012: 206). In this two-part article, we shall thus take a closer look at the background of some aspects of PR’s campaigning in the light of the phantom voter issue. This debate has been going on for decades, but has taken a different twist this time with the focus on foreigners who were said to have been given citizenship in return for BN votes, therefore thwarting PR’s chance of winning the elections. How is this foreignness constructed and what implications do some of the mechanisms of these constructions have?

Categories help to sort and understand the world we live in, both in academic discourse as well as in daily lives. However, every categorisation draws boundaries which are often used to exclude people from groups, and often this entails excluding them from specific privileges. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ groups that are thereby drawn can result in resentments and, in the worst cases, even hatred and genocide (Appadurai 2006).

Departing from the recent discussions on non-Malaysian voters in the general elections 2013, this article explores the various boundaries and exclusion mechanisms that predominate the Malaysian social and political landscape. Our argument is that the tendencies of ‘Othering’[2] visible in the recent elections offer an important opportunity to look into how deeply and in what ways mechanisms of division and exclusion are enmeshed in Malaysia’s social fabric. This is not only academically interesting but also important in order to enable those individuals and groups who seek to counter these divisions to do so holistically on a broad scale.

In order to properly understand the divisive potential of the way voters were encouraged to watch out for “non-Malaysians,” we will firstly turn one of the most important boundaries/lines of exclusion, namely that between those citizens classified as Malays versus those registered as non-Malays. During the past decades, this differentiation has increasingly been framed in religious terms and is expressed in many a discussion on ‘Muslims’ versus ‘non-Muslims’.

Ethnicisation of religious identities: A Malay is a Muslim is a Malay…

Islam and Malay identity are closely tied together and perpetuated in various ways, most notably through the legal system as well as through textual representations. Constitutionally, a Malay is defined as someone who speaks the Malay language, practices Malay customs and professes the religion of Islam (Art.160). Ethnicised and race-based politics that build upon these constitutionally defined identity markers become visible on various levels, including the level of language. This can be observed in daily communication but is especially evident in the media.

An analysis of a large number of articles concerning the topic of ‘religious freedom’ in the Malaysian daily newspaper ‘The New Straits Times’ between 2001 and 2007 revealed that in most articles, ‘Islam’ is tied to Malayness and framed in ethnicised terms (Schaefer 2009). In the vast majority of print media, the two categories of race and religion, in particular in the case of Malayness and Islam, are used in a way that may be called synonymous. Very often, “race and religion” and the formulation “multi-racial and multi-religious” are mentioned together as if an inseparable tandem. An example is this sentence from an article about Christmas carols in the daily newspaper ‘The New Straits Times’: “They (Christmas carols) are certainly not out of place in an Open House, which Rais correctly describes as ‘a joyous occasion where people of all races and religions can get together and partake of the celebration.”[3] This formulation includes the word ‘race’ and thereby suggests that there are ‘racial’ festivities, or that festivities are likely to be celebrated only with people of your own ‘race’

Several other examples show this synonymous use: “The Prime Minister said religious tolerance among the various races was vital in preserving the country’s peace and harmony“.[4] Here, rather than saying ‘among the various religious communities’, the word ‘race’ is utilised. Another pattern is the preceding mentioning of ‘non-Muslims’ and then referring to the Chinese: “He said PAS’ stand on the matter was also causing fear among non-Muslim communities. Ong said the MCA and Chinese (emphasis ours) accepted and respected Islam as the official religion, but, this was not applicable to PAS’ plans”.[5] “Malaysian Chinese have been assured that they will not lose their rights and privileges despite the recent statement by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad that the country is an Islamic state.” [6]

These examples demonstrate the synonymous use and illustrate the shift from an emphasis on race or ethnicity to that of religion. Here, the boundaries of the ‘we’- and ‘they’- groups are shifting.

The causes and effects of the establishing and perpetuating of these boundaries are manifold. They can partially explained with the tight control on the print media on part of the Malaysian state apparatus whose interest in a divided and fragmented society is obvious. However, the phenomenon of the synonymous use is not restricted to the print media which are controlled or overseen by the government and affected by technologies of self-censorship. Rather, it can also be observed in the independent news websites to a similar extent.

Rejection or reproduction? Categories of Othering in the independent Malaysian online media

The news website ‘MalaysiaKini’, maybe the most important Malaysian alternative source for news, employs a similar language regarding the ethnicised identities, referring to ‘the Chinese community’ and ‘the Indians’ when referring to Malaysian citizens categorised as ‘Chinese’ or ‘Indian’ according to paternal heritage.

The critical online magazine ‘The Nut Graph’ differs in its use of vocabulary and stresses national identity over ethnicised identity. Articles talk about the ‘Indian Malaysian community’ rather than the ‘Indian community’ and describe people as ‘Chinese Malaysians’. In their series of portraits and biographical interviews, the protagonists often stress their immigrant roots. An example is an interview with the author and artist Bernice Chauly, in which she talks about her Punjabi and Chinese grandparents, adding: “Malaysians don’t have one particular root. We are Indian, Chinese, Arab, Javanese, Bugis, English, we are a bit of everything. We’re not like the Persians who go back 6,000 years, we’re not like the Greeks. So it’s very difficult to place us as a nation, as a people”.[7]

Notably, in these examples, the Malaysian national identity is stressed but the ethnised identity is not neglected. Rather, it is incorporated into the national identity. This reminds of the way the discourse is structured in neighbouring Singapore, stressing the dual identity of ethnicised and national belonging and presenting the nation as a mosaic of relatively clear-cut identities that can be captured with racial or ethnic adjectives. In Bernice Chauly’s comment and personal background, however, it is visible that even in the individual stories, influences meet and mix and it is often difficult to actually reduce even an individual’s ethnicised belonging to one group.

The examples from the various newspapers and news websites show that different perspectives and ways of framing belonging to a ‘we’-group exist. The dominant representation resorts to identity based on race or ethnicity which is closely tied to religious identity. Alternatives, as just shown, tend to stress the national identity instead and integrate an ethnicised identity into the national identity. Now, we argue that this alternative does not in fact counter the strong exclusivism of which many critics of the Malaysian government accuse the country’s leaders. The alternate stressing of national belonging does neither break the strong boundaries that the long-term politics of divide-and-rule have built between people, nor does it make these boundaries more flexible or permeable. Instead, it only shifts the boundaries and re-defines the ‘we’-group.

[Note: Part Two is available HERE.]

Frederik Holst is a senior research fellow at Humboldt-Universit├дt zu Berlin. He holds a PhD in Southeast Asian Studies and an MA in Communication Studies, forming the basis of his research interests which focus on aspects of identity construction as well as the role and impact of media and technology in post-colonial societies. Regularly returning to Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) for the last 15 years, Penang has become his home away from home. Saskia Sch├дfer studied Southeast Asian Studies and Political Science at Humboldt-Universit├дt zu Berlin and USM in Penang before completing her doctorate at Freie Universit├дt Berlin. She is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in Modern Southeast Asian Studies at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University.

[1] In this article we try to avoid terms like “racial” or “ethnic” where possible. Adjectives like these suggest that there is an inherent trait in human beings that pre-defines their cultural and other affinities and affiliations. We do not believe that as we see human identities as multiple and fluid. We rather see contestations based on race and ethnicity in politics as well as in society as a process that is – albeit difficult to reverse – not cast in stone. To reflect this approach in our way of writing, we refer to these aspects as racialised or ethnicised to reflect the processual perspective.

[2] In the social sciences, the term is often used to describe “the business of creating the enemy … in order that the empire [or any other dominant centre] might define itself by its geographical and racial others” (Ashcroft et al. 2001: 173).

[3] The New Straits Times, ‘Joyous Sounds of Christmas’, 21.12.2004.

[4] The New Straits Times, ‘PM: Religious Tolerance is vital’, 14.05.2001.

[5] The New Straits Times, ‘MCA against PAS’ Islamic state plan’, 16.07.2001.

[6] The New Straits Times, ‘Ling: Our rights are assured’, 21.10.2001. See also a more detailed analysis with more examples from Sch├дfer (2009).

[7] The Nut Graph, ‘Telling Malaysian stories’, 23 July 2009; available at http://www.thenutgraph.com/telling-malaysian-stories/ .

Publication references

Appadurai, Arjun (2006): “Fear of Small Numbers. An Essay on the Geography of Anger”, Duke University Press, Durham.

Ashcroft, Bill; Griffiths, Gareth, et al., eds. (2001): “Post-Colonial Studies – The Key Concepts”, Routledge, London.

Holst, Frederik (2012): “Ethnicization and Identity Construction in Malaysia”, Routledge, London.

Levitsky, Steven; Way, Lucan A. (2002): “The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism”, Journal of Democracy 13(2): 51-65.

Loh, Francis Kok Wah (2003): “A New Politics in Malaysia: Ferment and Fragmentation”, in: Barlow, Colin; Loh, Francis Kok Wah: “Malaysian Economics and Politics in the New Century”, Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham.

Sch├дfer, Saskia L. (2009): “Racialising Religion in the Debate on Religious Freedom in Malaysia”. In AlтАРJami’ah: Journal for Islamic Studies 47 (1).