The 9 July ‘Walk for Democracy’ may have buried the ghost of May 13 once and for all, observes Francis Loh.
Many researchers of contemporary Malaysian politics, even more so ordinary Malaysians, take off from the perspective that Malaysia is a ‘plural society’ wherein two or more races live side-by-side within a political unit and yet do not intermingle, except in the market place.
Although J. S. Furnivall first coined the term in his study of British and Dutch colonialism in Southeast Asia, most researchers ignore the fact that he discusses the emergence of ‘plural societies’, which he defines as lacking a common sense of cultural belonging, within the context of the rise of capitalism in colonial societies, dominated by a colonial power. Put another way, Furnivall situates his ‘plural society’ in the context of a changing society and economy.
‘Plural society’ explanation inadequate
In this regard, although these researchers use the notion of plural society, in fact, their perspective is more closely related to the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s notion of ‘primordialism’ which refers to strong ineffable sentiments and attachments based on the ‘social givens’ of human existence, like blood relations, kinship, tribe, race, language, dialect, religion, social customs and region. For Geertz, primordialism is invoked to provide meaning and solace to ordinary people when their societies are undergoing rapid change.
In multi-ethnic societies like Malaysia, however, primordialism can lead to a heightening of ethnic group consciousness that threatens the nation-building process. Hence, an ‘integrative revolution’ that ushers in ‘civic politics’ is required, in order to prevent the break-up of these multi-ethnic nations.
In Geertz’s perspective, politics in a plural or multi-ethnic society is fractured along ethnic lines, and ethnic-based communities with recognisable leaders as well as common political interests and goals quite naturally emerge. It follows that electoral politics, too, is presumed to be ethnically determined and that voters, invariably, vote along ethnic lines. In a nutshell, the ethnic order of things is a ‘given’, almost natural.
‘Consociationalism’ explanations also inadequate
To explain why the Barisan Nasional (previously the Alliance), a coalition of ethnic-based political parties, has ruled Malaysia since Merdeka in 1957, these researchers emphasise, or even essentialise, the BN parties and their leaders as inherently more moderate in outlook and more prepared to share power than their Opposition counterparts, who are characterised as extremist, narrow-minded and unwilling to share power. This is why the BN has come out tops time-and-time again.
This is the ‘consociational model’ of politics, wherein the masses in a plural society are awash with communalism, the Opposition leaders are extremist and exclusivist in their views, and political stability and economic development can only be attained because of the altruistic and tolerant BN ruling elites. The theme of consociationalism is very popular, too, among researchers. Thanks to the propaganda disseminated via our schools, the mainstream media and the BN parties, the impression of a moderate BN and an extremist Opposition (Pas, DAP, PKR, PSM, etc) has also penetrated into the popular imagination of ordinary Malaysians
Such a perspective underscores explanations of the BN’s domination of Malaysian electoral politics. Often, references are also made to specific issues, episodes and events that occur when elections are held to explain variations in the BN’s victories, sometimes spectacular, other times less so.
For instance, the BN’s narrow victory in the 1999 general election was attributed to the ‘dual crises’ which occurred in the run up to that election viz. the regional financial crisis of 1997/98 and the political crisis resulting from then deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim’s sacking from Umno, both contributing towards a reformasi movement.
In 2004, the BN’s spectacular victory was explained in terms of the ‘Pak Lah factor’, namely, the ascendancy of Abdullah Badawi as Malaysia’s new prime minister just prior to the 2004 polls, replacing Dr Mahathir Mohamed who had been at the helm for 22 years. It was Abdullah who led the BN into the 2004 polls and, apparently due to his more endearing political style and several reform initiatives, ensured a spectacular victory for the BN. Many Christians seemed to be taken up by the fact the Malaysian PM had for the first time sent Christmas greeting cards to church leaders. Many Malaysians were also enamoured by his catchy slogans such as “Work with me; not for me”.
Hence, many of these same analysts had predicted another victory for the BN in the 2008 election. They were not wrong except that they were at a loss in explaining why the BN had lost its usual two-thirds’ parliamentary majority and had surrendered control of an unprecedented five state governments to the Opposition. As usual, there was the accusation that the Opposition had resorted to race-baiting (as in working with the Hindu Rights Action Front or Hindraf leaders to woo Indian voters) or that they had made unrealistic and unachievable promises to reduce the price of petroleum and various utilities via subsidies.
Pak Lah, who had been the factor explaining the BN’s spectacular success in the 2004 polls was touted as another critical factor accounting for the BN’s poor performance in the 2008 polls; a complete reversal of the earlier 2004 explanation!
Recalling past inter-ethnic cooperation
The fundamental flaw in the crude plural society, primordialist or consociational approach is that there is no notion of change in the depiction of Malaysian society. Malaysians, as it were, have always been and will always be caught in the web of ethnic sentiments and ethnic politics.
Granted, ethnic politics has characterised much of Malaysian politics in the past – but not all Malaysians, however, have been imbued with or overwhelmed by ethnic-based politics. In the run-up to Merdeka, every ethnic group contained within itself factions which were more attracted to ethnic politics as well as those who rejected it in favour of a more class-based multi-ethnic politics, for instance.
Why, there were intra-ethnic conflicts too! This is a fact which the official history of the struggle for Merdeka has attempted to obscure by highlighting the roles of Umno leaders and their success in reaching out to MCA and MIC leaders across the ethnic divide.
In fact, there have always been groups advocating multi-ethnic cooperation; for instance in the Merdeka period, the All–Malaya Council of Joint Action (AMCJA), which was dominated by non-Malays, forged an understanding with Putera (Pusat Tenaga Rakyat), largely made up of radical Malay groups. A few years ago, an award-winning documentary Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka by Fahmi Reza recounted this aspect of our Malaysian history. In the 1960s, yet another alliance between the Chinese-based Labour Party and the Malay-based Parti Rakyat was promoted.
At any rate, after 54 years of Merdeka, Malaysia is no longer the society and economy it once was. It has been transformed from a tin- and rubber-led commodities-based economy to an export-led manufacturing and services-based economy.
With rapid growth and industrialisation, the size of the working class employed in the industrial estates and the free industrial zones has grown. In February 2010, total registered foreign workers stood at 1.8 million. They, too, were contributing to Malaysia’s economic growth.
Similarly, the size of the middle-class has expanded rapidly. Whereas there used to be a single university, today there are some 25-odd public universities, another 20-plus private universities, and hundreds of other private colleges.
Plus, thousands continue to return to Malaysia after studying abroad every year. These graduates constitute the youth who often are IT-savvy. They read the alternative online dailies besides blogging, tweeting and have their own Facebook profiles. No doubt they made a difference in the 2008 election. And they were amongst the tens of thousands who participated in the Walk for Democracy on 9 July.
Besides, a large proportion of people involved in the new economy and higher education are also women. As is well known, women account for more than 60 per cent of enrolment in the public universities.
Surely, the rising numbers of the educated, IT-savvy middle-class, especially the youths, male and female, make a difference to Malaysian politics!
With the successful implementation of the New Economic Policy (NEP, 1971-90) and its continuation under other auspices like the National Development Policy (1991-2000), a large proportion of those engaged in the new economy, at the upper, middle and lower echelons are bumiputera too.
According to the Ninth Malaysia Plan, the incidence of poverty was down to 5.7 per cent in 2004. For critical scholars, the key problem is that of relative poverty, which is growing, especially within the bumiputera community.
Moreover, regional differences have become increasingly pronounced with the states of Sabah (23%), Terengganu (15.4%), Kelantan (10.6%), Sarawak (7%), Kedah (7.0%) and Perlis (6.3%) registering the highest rates of poverty. By contrast, the index was less than 2% in Johore, Melaka, Negri Sembilan, Kuala Lumpur, Selangor and Penang.
Burying the ghost of May 13
Some of us will recall our anxieties on the night of 8 March 2008, when the electoral results were coming in. Many feared the worst as it was being announced that the BN had lost its two-thirds’ parliamentary majority and that the Opposition had captured five state governments.
In fact, we had forgotten that we had a history of inter-ethnic cooperation as well and that our society had been transformed to facilitate inter-ethnic ties. The formation of the Pakatan Rakyat governments in four states is further testimony that Malaysians can see through those who resort to racial baiting; Malaysians can transcend ethnic ties and sentiments.
In this regard, the Walk for Democracy is a significant marker of how Malaysians have come of age, democratically speaking. Despite the rabid promptings of groups like Perkasa and Utusan Malaysia and the fears of so many that holding the Walk would lead to racial conflict, nothing of that sort happened!
Despite the fact that the prime minister had tried his darndest to prevent them from going to the streets, ironically, his dream of 1Malaysia was being realised in the streets! For the walkers for democracy came from all ethnic groups. They were male and female and probably in-between as well, of all ages. From all walks of life and and from all parts of the country.
Perhaps the event of 9 July 2011 buried the ghost of May 13, 1969.once and for all!
Put another way, there has occurred tremendous transformation of Malaysia’s economy and society. If this is so apparent, it should also be apparent that Malaysian politics has also been undergoing change. For the new middle-class, especially the youths, are demanding political reform and democratisation. Why, the ghost of May 13 is now being displaced by the multi-ethnic solidarity displayed in the Walk for Democracy of 9 July 2011.
Researchers who resort to crude plural society theories, primordialism and consociation-alism, must work into their analyses the process of socio-economic transformation. Those who continue to resort to ethnic sentiments and manipulation, your time has ended! Change has come!
Dr Francis Loh is honorary secretary of Aliran.
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