The year 2017, which marked the 60th year since the Federation of Malaya emerged from colonial rule to become a new nation, was a compelling moment to reflect on important social, economic, cultural, and political developments and changes that had taken place. Some changes were realized more or less as planned, while others were unforeseen. Some fulfilled hopes, but others scuttled expectations. Many brought lasting outcomes but many more only transitory impacts. This chapter serves as the introduction to a volume of articles that views Malaysia’s multidimensional social transformation through lenses of “divides and dissent” to appraise key moments, incidents and expressions of contention, and trends of conflict that have shaped society and politics. The areas and issues covered by this exercise of critical reflection are ethnicity and class, political economy, federal-state relations, Islamism and Islamist practices, law and the judiciary, women’s participation in politics, art and pedagogy, and the emergence of new streams of sociopolitical dissent.
Ethnicity and class, two major paradigms constructed during the British colonial period, have shaped Malaysian studies until the present. Very few concepts other than ethnicity and class have triggered as much polemics among scholars, public intellectuals, policy makers, and activists in Malaysia. This is especially so in debates over political economy, state power, social change, and the perennial question “Who rules, who gets what, who wins, and who loses?” Ethnicity has become the dominant paradigm in academic analysis, and it shapes government policies, public opinion, and people’s thinking. Ethnic preferences are so entrenched that they form a major cause of divides and dissent in society, and a millstone that constrains social cohesion and progress. Adopting a historical/retrospective approach, this article identifies four defining episodes or watersheds in post-World War II Malaysia that have a significant bearing on the complex relationship and contestation between ethnicity and class. Those episodes are: (1) postwar agenda of crafting the state and envisioning the nation, 1946–48; (2) social engineering under the New Economic Policy and nation building, 1969–71; (3) envisioning a multiethnic developed nation through Vision 2020 and Bangsa Malaysia; and (4) post-2008 transition trap: reining in ethno-nationalist resurgence and moving toward a new Malaysia. It is suggested that the ethnic paradigm, being a social construct, may change and can be changed. However, efforts to change it should be guided by a non-ethnic, inclusive, and class-based paradigm that is sensitive to the complexity of the mediation between ethnic consciousness and cross-ethnic class solidarity.
This paper examines conflict in Malaysia through an analysis of rents and the relationship between the economic imperative for growth and political imperative for stability. It links episodes of conflict and political instability to the social forces that drive the allocation of rents and the impact of these rents on the pattern of accumulation. It examines how the emergence and expansion of the Malay intermediate classes increased contestation and conflict over the allocation of rents that compromised the state’s ability to balance the political imperative for stability with the economic imperative for growth. It traces Malaysia’s long-term economic slowdown associated with premature deindustrialization to the state prioritizing rents for accommodation (redistribution) over rents for learning and accumulation.
This article traces the major contestations that have taken place in Sabah and Sarawak throughout the 54 years of their independence. The two major areas of contestation are state power and local resources, pitting federal leaders against Sabah and Sarawak’s elites. These contestations have forced the federal government to accommodate the local elites, thus ensuring the stability of Barisan Nasional (BN) rule in the East Malaysian states. However, Sabah and Sarawak elites are not homogeneous since they have different degrees of power, agendas, and aspirations. These differences have led to open feuds between the elites, resulting in the collapse of political parties and the formation of new political alignments. Over almost four decades, a great majority of the people in Sabah and Sarawak have acceded to BN rule. However, in the last decade there have been pockets of resistance against the authoritarian rule of BN and the local elites. This article argues that without accountability and a system of checks and balances, the demand for more autonomy by the increasingly vocal Sabah and Sarawak elites will benefit only them and not the general public.
This article seeks to analyze the evolving development and contestations regarding the interplay of Islam and politics in Malaysia’s public space for a period of 60 years (1957–2017) since its independence as a nation-state. A crucial element in this discourse is the official position of Islam as the “religion of the federation” in the Malaysian Constitution, which simultaneously guarantees the freedom of other religions embraced by almost half of the country’s population. The population became even more diverse ethnically and religiously upon the formation of the Federation of Malaysia, which replaced Malaya, on September 16, 1963. Closely related to the discourse of political Islam in Malaysia, the evolving concepts of “religion” and “secularism” in Malaysia’s Islamic context have undergone considerable shifts as a result of constant public engagement by an assortment of politicians, commentators, scholars, bureaucrats, and civil society activists. As the argument develops, Malaysia’s interaction with Islam has been essentialized by political interests such that boundaries are hardened between what is considered Islamic and un-Islamic. The increasingly rigid positions adopted by Islamic stakeholders have arguably worsened both interreligious and intra-Muslim relations, with progressive Muslim voices increasingly finding themselves marginalized in the state-controlled political environment.
Malaysia is a common law country, and as such the decisions of its courts have a binding and law-making force. This means that the Malaysian judiciary is highly influential in setting the tenor of governance. In this article I examine and analyze some key decisions that had an influence on divisiveness and dissent in the country. I point out that the courts have been poor in ensuring that the legal system protects the nation from divisive elements, and the legal system does not do enough to guarantee the fundamental rights and democratic principles that were envisioned by the founding fathers for the citizenry. The article closes with an attempt to understand why this is the case.
Malaysia’s representation of women as parliamentarians remains one of the lowest in comparison to other Southeast Asian and global parliamentary democracies. However, when contextualized against Malaysia’s politics of divides and dissent starting from 1999 onward, there are some newer characteristics of women’s involvement in formal politics. This paper explores the specificities of women’s experience in formal politics under the one-party dominant rule of the National Front before it was defeated in the May 2018 general election. The paper questions various incidents of political transitioning from an old to a newer political regime. Processes such as the collaboration between women’s civil society and formal state political actors, the cultivation of clientelist and patronage relations, and the maintenance of a cohesive multiparty coalition as a strategy for electoral advantage have all had fruitful bearings on the way the formalization of women in politics has developed. However, given the insufficiency of these developments for increasing women’s representation, this paper proposes the more reliable gender quota or reserved seats mechanism as one of the considerations for gender electoral reform.
This essay examines the historical conditions of the politics of pedagogy that have shaped the history of postcolonial higher education and attempts at producing countermovements to its subsequent institutionalization. I consider this in relation to pedagogical practices that reference creative forms in avant-garde art and theater. A genealogy of rethinking education through creative means can be traced back to the establishment of Nanyang University and the teaching of contemporary Asian literature by Han Suyin, with later artists such as Wong Hoy Cheong engaging with Paulo Freire’s ideas on learning in Wong’s course on Third World aesthetics, Universiti Bangsar Utama’s reimagination of the role that education could play in Kuala Lumpur during the 1998 Reformasi, and most recently Buku Jalan’s decentering of education. Finally, I consider the pedagogical stakes at hand by exploring the life story of a bookseller in Kelantan and his embodiment of a local cosmopolitanism.
Surveying a post-1998 political terrain in Malaysia marked by sociopolitical dissent of diverse origins and goals, this article addresses several related issues. What social transformation and tensions have produced such a situation? What has been the impact of the dissent on contemporary politics? What are its implications when neither the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (National Front), nor the opposition up to 2017 could claim to have a convincing hold over the popular imagination? The analysis provided here shows that long-term socioeconomic transformation has produced sources of political conflict that go beyond the familiar ones of interethnic divisiveness. The most visible impact of the dissent was the opposition’s electoral gains on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia in 2008 and 2013. Those gains demonstrated the efficacy of a new template of dissent consisting of cooperation between opposition parties, their alliances with dissident civil society, and their non-ethnic mobilization of disaffected segments of the electorate. There were populist traits to the mass, multiethnic, cross-class, and mainly urban mobilization of dissent that favored fluid politics that was double-edged. On the one hand, as the views of a number of interviewees suggest, the politics could successfully accommodate a wide range of concerns and actors. On the other hand, the contingent, flexibly structured cooperation among parties was subject to internal or external stresses and strains. But, as the Conclusion suggests, new streams of dissent could emerge in unexpected ways, such as the suspected complicity of the regime’s leadership in scandals that led to splits within the ruling party. It remained to be seen whether the 14th general election, which had to be held by mid-2018, would supply a definitive resolution of the virtual stalemate between the regime and the opposition.