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Articles, Commentaries, Philosophy, Picking on the Past, The Malaysian Insight

The Art of Dismantling Cultural Pluralism

By OOI KEE BENG, “Picking on the Past”, column in Penang Monthly, October 2017. (Published on Merdeka Day, 31 August 2017 in The Malaysian Insight).

MALAYSIA is a special place for its natural geography and its human history, but most importantly of all, because of its demographic complexity.

The peninsula is on the western receiving end of the wind systems of the Bay of Bengal, placed between huge and influential civilizations, and endowed as one of the world’s few archipelagic regions where the climate is kind, the seas generous and where coastal cultures developed separately from but knowledgeable of each other, isolated populations traded with each other and were quietly cosmopolitan in ways that were – and are – very different from the metropolitan complexity of civilizational centres elsewhere in the world.

New actors from Europe arrived onto the scene and their orientation was much more global in reach and their capacity to transform societies and regions were much greater than those who had come before. They brought to the region what we have learned to call “modern times”.

What this intrusion also precipitated, through the new economic structures their arrival implanted, was a hugely accelerated migration of peoples as much from within as from outside the region.

British Malaya

British Malaya, then, whether we acknowledge it today or not, created a radically new demographic situation.

The intra-Nusantara population on the peninsula jumped as much as the extra-Nusantara population did.

Most importantly, a new socio-economic pattern came into being, strongly tied to the emergent global economy being mid-wifed by mercantile Britain.

This global economic, political and ideological connection that accompanied and nourished the demographic changes on the peninsula, is what makes Malaysia special.

It is the reason why Malaysia – and more obviously in the case of Singapore after 1963 – could so easily move ahead economically after Merdeka in 1957 of its Dutch-controlled and French-controlled neighbours, and the semi-colonised Thailand.

British Malaya as a whole, despite the shrewd method of indirect but effective rule used, was therefore a world quite unlike the Malay Peninsula that existed before the late 18th century. Let us say that the traditional “Pax Nusantara” was replaced.

The Japanese occupation in 1942-45 was the death knell for the Pax Britannica within which British Malaya could exist and evolve so successfully. The Second World War brought a new world order into place, and this sudden change exerted strong pressure on British Malaya to respond urgently and to transcend into something else that could survive in that new world order, with as little disruption and violence as possible.

What we then see after the War was a scramble, on one hand, to vainly reconstruct British Malaya, and on the other, to transition into a Pax Americana that for the region at that time was patently more about the Cold War than anything else.


For the British, letting the leaders of urban Malaya take over the reins of power was the best way to ensure the defeat of communism and the continuation of its own economic and cultural influence over Malaya beyond Merdeka. And this they managed to achieve – at least until 1969.

What the British were most concerned about was not communism, which could be fought through strategic and military means, it was instead communalism.

They knew that the new and demographically diverse Malaya they had created over almost 200 years had to transcend into a new consciousness that would allow it to remain politically united and be a steady part of the capitalist global economy.

The advent of the Alliance formula, stabilised by 1955, was therefore a godsend that put to rest the uncertainties that surrounded all the policies they had undertaken in the decade following their return in 1946. With Merdeka, they could more or less wipe their hands clean, and keep some of the goodies.

The incorporation of Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak in 1963 had troubles to work out, but with little input from the British.

In fact, they were not told of Singapore’s separation in 1965 until the very last minute. That separation, and the remaining of Sabah and Sarawak in the federation of course were informed by communal tensions and concerns. Keeping the peace through inter-ethnic consensus was to remain the preferred formula for peace and prosperity.

All that changed in 1969.

The New Economic Policy that was put in place to solve the socio-economic problems associated with turning colonised peoples and colonial economies into a national citizenry and a national economy had great merits.

But given how finely balanced the political system had been, the heavy overall political and mentality transformation that accompanied it allowed for a new generation of Malay leaders to play a game based more on subservience than on consensus.

This transformation, aside from the NEP, included:

1. The gerrymandering that detached the population of Kuala Lumpur out of the voting process for the key state of Selangor where the rioting of 1969 had broken out.

2. The thorough muffling of free speech through constitutional amendments and other legislative measures.

3. The incorporation of almost all political parties into the Barisan Nasional coalitional system.

4. And most significantly, the promotion in practical terms of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) into unchallengeable prominence and dominance.

Alluring and opportunistic racialist notions such as “Ketuanan Melayu” (Malay Supremacy) and “Negara Islam” (Islamic State) became the preferred terms of discourse for Malay leaders within Umno. In fact, the flaws of the former necessitated the cunning evolution into the latter.

All this has not been so much an attempt at nostalgic reference to some mythical “Tanah Melayu” run by a people called “Melayu” as many may think, but simply a path-dependent strategy born of the opportunistic overreaction in the early 1970s to the rioting in Selangor.
Whether that rioting was part of a coup against Tunku Abdul Rahman, I shall leave to others to decide, but the 1970s brought into being a new Malaysian polity, aided by the fact that Singapore had left and Sabah and Sarawak had remained.

As mentioned earlier, what made Malaysia Malaysia was its ethnic pluralism, but the power structure of the early 1970s allowed for the imagination to be encouraged among the Malays by their self-proclaimed race-champion, Umno, that the country had always and shall remain “Tanah Melayu” (a land-based Malay world).

This, despite the fact that indigenous peoples of the region were always more correctly described to be living in “Kelautan Melayu”, (a sea-based Malay world). The nation-state concept is most faulty when it is used to describe maritime regions.

Dismantling pluralism

Sixty years after Merdeka, then, negotiations and struggles continue to find a balance between the communities, which can make Malaysia globally significant, economically powerful, and socially enviable. The notion of “Bangsa Malaysia” championed in the prosperous early 1990s was one such attempt.

Sadly, what has been happening over the decades is that Umno’s need to keep the Malay community as captive voters also unavoidably captured the country’s discourse and placed it in a perpetually contentious mode.

Once upon a time, the contention was along the dimension between inter-ethnic integration and inter-ethnic assimilation. Now it is about the degree of inter-ethnic separation.

In short, while the first decade following Merdeka was about stabilising the Alliance formula, the following six decades has seen the art of dismantling cultural pluralism being perfected.

– August 31, 2017.
* Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His many books include The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr Ismail and His Time (ISEAS 2006).


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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