How to manage diversity in a democratising state has become a huge challenge for all Malaysians, says Hew Wai Weng.
Instead of simplified dichotomies such as secular vs Islamist and multicultural vs racist, Malaysian politics today is about the coexistence of a wide spectrum of opinions and attitudes towards issues such as race, religion, language, sexuality and class.
It is also about how various actors are articulating and promoting their agendas and how they are competing and cooperating with one another.
Ethnicity and leadership
On ethnicity and leadership, some groups such as Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma) and Perkasa uphold “Malay dominance”, in which non-Malays should be excluded from key government positions.
Many non-Malays think race should not be an issue in leadership.
Others, including those in Umno and Bersatu, agree with power-sharing among different ethnic groups but it should be led by the Malays.
On language policy, some leaders including Dr Mahathir Mohamad have intentions of reintroducing English-medium schools or at least to teach science and maths in English.
Some Malay-language nationalists prefer the government to enhance the status of Malay language.
There are also groups that demand more official recognition on multilingual education, for example, Chinese-education organisations which are lobbying the government to recognise Unified Examination Certificate (UEC).
These different opinions coexist among the current Pakatan Harapan’s leadership.
Even among Malay-language nationalists, there are different opinions.
Some suggest that by using a single language, all Malaysians should be treated equally.
Yet, there are also those who want non-Malays to be assimilated culturally but do not want to treat them as equal citizens.
The same goes for Chinese-language education activists – some suggest Chinese schools be more open to non-Chinese.
Yet there are also those who prefer to keep Chinese schools as a site to protect Chinese cultural identity.
Islamic or secular state?
On religion, some Muslim groups such as Isma insist Malaysia is a negara Islam (Islamic state).
Many non-Muslims and liberal-minded Muslims prefer a secular state.
And there are also groups such as Pertubuhan Ikram Malaysia (Ikram) which promote the agenda of a negara rahmah (a kind of compassionate state, underpinned by Islamic values).
Amongst the so-called Islamists, there are Malay-oriented Islamists who think Malaysia should be a Malay-dominated Islamic state.
There are also universal-minded Islamists who welcome Muslims of different ethnic backgrounds to lead Malaysia.
Gender and sexuality
On gender, some Islamists want everyone to wear hijab in a more proper way.
Others prefer to wear the fashionable hijab, which could be “not-so Islamic”.
There are movements of dehijabing (discarding the hijab).
Yet there are also trends of wearing a niqab (face-covering veil).
On sexuality, some demand harsher laws to punish the LGBT.
Some prefer to educate them and to bring them to “the right path” through counselling.
Others think the LGBT should be given the freedom to be who they want to be.
Hopes and anxieties
Such different opinions crisscross each other in many ways, and they are shaping – and being shaped by – political competition in the “New Malaysia”.
Sometimes, the notion of New Malaysia leads some people to have both unrealistic hopes and over-exaggerated anxieties .
Some expect New Malaysia to be more equal and liberal.
Others might worry that New Malaysia is undermining the so-called Malay-Muslim agenda – while, in fact, various old social fragmentations and political competitions have persisted beyond the 2018 general election.
Some groups such as Ikram see New Malaysia as an opportunity to promote their agenda of a compassionate state (negara rahmah).
Other groups such as Isma might view New Malaysia as a threat that undermines Malay-Muslim rights.
There are movements to consolidate a coalition to “defend Malay Muslims” and to downplay internal differences.
Yet, simply calling them radicals, extremists or “Talibans” might add further voice to the radicals – who are actually a small minority – and allow them to speak on behalf of ordinary Muslims who might be unhappy with the current government (yet not necessarily outright racists or narrow Islamists).
To counter such a narrative of “defending Islam”, some analysts have suggested that Pakatan Harapan come up with a coherent narrative.
Yet, in reality, there are multiple (yet not necessarily contradictory) narratives within the PH leadership – be it Amanah’s “compassionate Islam”, Bersatu’s “Malay Agenda”, the DAP’s “Malaysian Malaysia” and Keadilan’s “multiculturalism” and “Muslim democrats”.
Hence, how to formulate a single grand New Malaysia narrative amidst these various contending narratives?
But then, do we really need a single narrative or shall we let multiple narratives coexist, cooperate and compete with each other in New Malaysia? Are there common grounds for these different ideas to interact – a monolingual or multilingual public sphere? a secular or a religious or a hybrid public sphere?
In some ways, New Malaysia is reminiscent of Malaysia in the early and mid-1990s, when we had Mahathir’s Vision 2020 and “Bangsa Malaysia”, coupled with Anwar Ibrahim’s “Melayu Baru” and “masyarakat madani” – ie an inclusive and multicultural Malaysia yet led by the Malays and underpinned by moderate Islamic principles.
From balancing act to managing diversity
Nevertheless, political alignments have changed drastically, the National Front (BN) formula of Umno-led power-sharing now replaced by a PH coalition with no single dominating party.
In the previous BN government, its leaders deployed the BN formula to paper over contentious issues, especially those related to race and religion. Leaders of each ethnic-based parties supposedly represented their respective ethnic groups, and they arrived at some kind of a consensus or compromise to manage multi-ethnic and multi-religious Malaysia.
With the support of non-Malays, liberal-minded Malays, moderate Islamists and moderate nationalists, PH is positioning itself as a centrist coalition, trying to balance between ‘super-liberal’ and ‘ultra-conservative’ groups.
This also means it faces challenges in managing expectations (of liberal groups) and containing the resentment (of conservative groups).
It appears that PH does not have a mechanism to deal with contentious issues. This has led to its mishandling of many recent issues such as the relocation of a Hindu temple, the U-turn over the ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the lack of recognition of the UEC exams, and the expansion of the matriculation quota.
The BN formula might be no longer practical. But many Malaysians have not yet moved away from a racialised mindset – and then there is the increasingly important role of Islam in Malaysian politics, together with the challenge posed by the popularity of social media.
How to manage diversity in a democratising state has become a huge challenge for all Malaysians.
Dr Hew Wai Weng is a Fellow at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (Ikmas) in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. He has written extensively on Chinese Muslims, popular Islamic preachers, the Muslim middle class and the culture of consumption in Malaysia and Indonesia.