Why are you interested in Malaysia? If asked such a question, the majority of foreign observers, scholars and students of Malaysian politics would most likely mention ethnicity, religion (Islam) or what is broadly categorised as “identity politics.” Even if identity is not their primary interest, not one of them is likely to deny that collective identities are a crucial aspect of contemporary Malaysian politics dominated by the multi-ethnic ruling coalition, National Front (Barisan Nasional, BN).
What will Malaysian politics look like if BN ever lost power? Would identity, either ethnic or religious, recede from politics if the opposition, People’s Alliance (Pakatan Rakyat, PR), came to power? Or would it fuel politicisation of identity even further to threaten otherwise relatively oppressive but peaceful inter-communal relations?
Life without BN
Possible answers to these questions in part depend on the type of regime that the opposition coalition—comprised of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), Democratic Action Party (DAP), and the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS)—wishes to establish. The opposition pact was first and foremost formed and sustained to challenge and bring down the authoritarian rule of BN where the Malay-Muslim based United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) is dominant. The establishment of some form of democratic rule is their next goal. Indeed, their platform, “Ubah Sekarang, Selamatkan Malaysia! (Change Now, Save Malaysia!)”, published in the run-up to the 2008 elections emphasizes the following initiatives: expansion of democratic rights and institutions such as independent judiciary; creation of a just and fair society that provides all people with equal opportunities regardless of ethnicity, religion and culture; elimination of corruption and other unfair and discriminatory practices that hinder equal and fair distribution of public resources; growth with equity; and elimination of undemocratic apparatuses and practices, most notably the Internal Security Act (ISA). The absence of aforementioned initiatives under the current regime provided a common ground for opposition parties to come and fight together, leading to their impressive electoral ascendancy in 2008. The question remains however: Is the PR platform sufficient to convince their multi-ethnic constituencies to oust BN from power to build a new democratic Malaysia?
Buttressing the 'supremacy' of one race
Complication about Malaysia’s regime change and democratic transition is derived from the very nature of the current regime. It is not only authoritarian in a conventional sense of the term, but also highly ethnocentric and illiberal, thereby denying equal rights and freedom to minority citizens based on their ethnic/religious identities. Under this regime, the majority Malay (and therefore Muslim) population have gained an unparalleled amount of power, wealth, status and opportunities as their birth rights since independence. UMNO and its major coalition partners in BN, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), were formed and allowed to survive primarily to represent and protect political and material interests of Chinese and Indian minority communities. In the post-NEP period, the regime has become even more protective of the communal interests of the Muslim-Malays while gaining authoritarian characters.
Under this ethnocentric pro-Malay regime, state institutions and a bureaucratic infrastructure were constructed in a manner to buttress supremacy of the state, UMNO and the Muslim-Malay community, while undermining civil society, civil rights and the well being of minority communities. Furthermore, the same regime has granted an unprecedented amount of power, resources and authority to the Islamic state bureaucracies in order to cater to the religious interests and spiritual well being of a growingly pious Muslim-Malay community. The results of such maneuvering are now obvious in a wide range of policy areas including law, education, welfare and economy. Consequently, post-NEP generations of minority populations feel increasingly alienated and discriminated against despite the fact that some communal grievances were mitigated by the inclusive multi-ethnic national vision and continuous growth under Mahathir (together with currently opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim) till the multiple crises following 1998.
Against this backdrop, it is of little surprise that the Hindu-Indian community has formed a powerful opposition against the regime. In 2007, the opposition was organised to form an ethno-nationalistic movement, Hindraf (Hindu Rights Action Force), to express the socio-economic grievances and political demands of the community. The state’s violent suppression of a street protest organised by the movement further deteriorated the already uneasy relations between the BN regime and minority communities, arousing anti-regime sentiments even further with particular damage done in urban areas.
Opposition parties, while certainly sharing such unusually strong anti-regime sentiments emanating from civil society, were not able to translate these divisive ethnocentric sentiments and demands directly into political action. Instead, they have chosen to stay mute on fundamental issues that they do not wish to discuss or negotiate, that is, issues related to communal identities and religion.
Moreover, they strategically framed their anti-regime cause in universal democratic terms so as to forge a critical coalition with civil society forces across communal boundaries. They did so precisely because they need one another to maintain a multi-ethnic coalition front in order to beat BN. They and electorates are aware that the opposition parties and their interests, just like their opponents in the ruling coalition, are defined and restrained by competing identities: PKR is Malay-Muslim dominant and led by the most charismatic and powerful Malaysian Muslim leader to date, Anwar Ibrahim; DAP is non-Muslim based and dominated by ethnic Chinese; and PAS is a puritanical Islamist party. These constituencies have made significant efforts to compromise on issues regarding their core identities and interests in order to achieve their political goals and survival. Such compromise was handsomely rewarded with a significant 2008 increase in votes for the PR.
The tragedy of Malaysian authoritarianism is that authoritarian rule has grown stronger alongside the growing dominance of UMNO in BN and the Malaysian polity as well as its avidly pro-Malay and pro-Islam characters throughout 1980s and 1990s. The highly politicised identities—and state, political, economic and socio-cultural institutions created to serve the identity-based interests over several decades—will not easily go away even if regime change rids Malaysia of authoritarian rule and the BN falls from power. Popular interests and demands will continue to be defined and organised through collective identities based on ethnicity, religion, culture, or some combination of these characteristics.
This situation will lead to another tragedy: a tragedy of Malaysian democracy and regime change. As a result of the institutionalisation of politicised identities, demands for democracy, freedom and equal rights for all Malaysians are readily interpreted in zero-sum terms to connote a reduction of the special rights and privileges preserved for the Malay-Muslim majority. Regardless of whoever takes over the BN, the new regime will have to negotiate and balance contending communal demands and interests.
Can the Malays accept a new deal
The key question here is whether Malaysians, especially the Malay-Muslim community, are ready to accept a new set of deals, terms and conditions set by the new democratic regime along the line suggested by PR. All possible signs thus far seem to suggest that they are not. According to public surveys conducted by the Merdeka Center between 2008 and 2010, a large majority of Malays, especially those in the lower income categories, strongly favour the reservation of special rights and privileges. They are also extremely anxious about policies and concessions that appear favourable to non-Malay communities. It is important to remember that Malay votes for UMNO/BN were constant between 2004 and 2008 and many still think that UMNO supremacy is necessary to protect their special rights.
More alarmingly, such anxiety among a community perceived to be under threat or siege at a time when the regime is undergoing unpredictable transition is a ready recipe for communal tension and potential violence. Indeed, it was when the BN adopted policies and allocated resources in ways seen disproportionately favorable to the non-Malay communities, especially Chinese, that ultra-nationalistic Malay movements such as Perkasa gained popular approval and appeal. Some UMNO elites were willing to allow these movements to exploit racist rhetoric and symbols in an effort to provoke anti-minority sentiment and violence.
Regime transition means that UMNO will be in the opposition. It is not unlikely that UMNO elites will use such racist rhetoric and movements more freely and aggressively to regain power they have lost, deteriorating already uneasy ethnic relations even further. We are also unsure if PAS will remain moderate once it gains power in order to have access to the conservative religious bureaucracies and patronage that have expanded dramatically under UMNO. According to Ashutosh Varshney, a renowned scholar of ethnic violence, ethnic peace is more likely when rivaling communities have developed associational interactions and ties—and social capital—across ethnic boundaries so as to withstand attempts to instigate racial hatred or antagonism. If this proposition and legacies of institutionalized political identities mentioned above offer some guide to predict Malaysia’s democratic future, we are left uncertain whether the much-waited transition to democracy will in fact bring a peaceful and happy future for all Malaysians as many had wished.
Kikue Hamayotsu is Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL, USA. Her research focuses on comparative politics, identity politics, religion and politics and regime transition and quality of democracy in the Muslim world with special reference to Indonesia and Malaysia. Her current interest include: religious parties and electoral politics, religious intolerance and violence, and finding a way to move Australia closer to North America.