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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

Is Malaysia seeing a crisis in its identity politics?

Identity politics cannot end happily. Since the “Us-versus-Them” game is a cynical exercise in exclusion on the one hand, and inclusion on the other — both done through essentialist myth-building and through the dismissal and denial of factors that stand in the way — desperation and defensiveness become its default sentiment.

Historically, the worst cases resulted in slavery, genocide and world wars. In this context, South Africa is an encouraging case where apartheid was ended through negotiation. But even that was only after much suffering, much violence and way too much sacrifice on the part of many who resisted the practice of institutionalised racial segregation. And of course, the sentiments informing identity politics there cannot be said to have ended.

In the US, where a four-year civil war led to the official end of slavery, racialism raises its ugly head whenever it has a chance, surviving and “standing by” in cultural practices, in institutions and in individual homes.Sponsored Content

The year 2020 presented a slew of hurdles for most of those in the agriculture and farming industry. They faced the ultimate conundrum: On the one hand, they needed to continue producing fresh produce for the many households that had started cooking again because of the Movement Control Order (MCO).

Now at the end of 2020, there is a real fear that street violence will escalate regardless of which way the US presidential election results go.

Having said the above, one should not be too eager to compare different countries and different times. There are often too many factors in play for us to be able to draw definite conclusions and predictions.

Inter-ethnic tensions and conflicts are in fact more the norm than the exception in nation states, notwithstanding the gradual conformism, integration and assimilation that we theoretically expect from the common experience of living under one system of law, using one passport and currency, and having a lingua franca.

What seems to aggravate the situation is usually exactly this utopian ambition to achieve a country that is as clearly the expression of a nation (ethnos) as possible, where all speak the same language, go through the same school system, profess the same religion and even acknowledge the same origins.

But really, there are hardly any real nation states in the world today, and even if there were, they could not but survive through close economic and social ties with peoples outside their boundaries, meaning that they must allow themselves to be “tainted”, “polluted” and “hybridised”.

Malaysia’s tightrope trick

In Malaysia, identity politics has been a plague since the country’s very beginning. If racialism (that is, the tendency to prioritise race categories and to consider them to be always relevant) is recognised for what it is, namely populism, then the deeply detrimental effects of identity politics become more obvious.

To be sure, there was always a tightrope to walk in building Malaysia, balancing between the centralising tendencies of modern state-building and respecting the cultural and historical differences of the many parts that constitute it.

Federalism was always the obvious answer, be it in the forming of a federation of sultanates as in 1948, an alliance of ethnicity-based political parties as in 1952, or in the creation of the super-federation of Malaysia as in 1963 through the conjoining of the earlier Federation of Malaya with Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore.

The British made a horrible blunder — in timing, if not in principle — in implementing the Malayan Union in 1946. But to their credit, they learnt after a few missteps that a federal system was necessary if they were to sew together their hotchpotch of colonies in Southeast Asia into a stable post-colonial polity; and they recognised that the consociationalism developed in the early 1950s by Malaya’s founding fathers was a viable one.

Today, in 2020, when the promising vision of national maturity has painfully failed, it should be clearer than ever to most leaders that the best way to walk this tightrope is to focus on state-building, instead of using identity politics as a pretense for nation-building in general.

One has to ask if identity politics is faltering; failing simply because it has failed to deliver the promises inherent in the declaration of Merdeka. It had had an extremely long honeymoon period, thanks to the system’s ability to divide the Malaysian public into clearly separated communities and to keep them separated by sowing a deep distrust among them.

By propagating terms such as bumiputera, by extending racially justified policies ad infinitum and by raising religious barriers to astronomical heights, the inclusion-exclusion game became almost the only game in town for all sides involved, and a self-destructive one.

A reset is a deep rethink

However, in the end, the factors that were dismissed and denied came home to roost. People turn out not to be as divisible into categories as political propagandists might think. And as the invented majority becomes big enough to not feel threatened, the contradictions that have been ignored (for example, class and gender issues and the international character of Malaysian culture) or that has been generated by the “Us-versus-Them” game (for example, cronyism and corruption justified as racial political exigencies) become irrefutable.

Thus, the call for a “reset” of Malaysian politics being heard today, in 2020, in the middle of the triple health-government-economy crisis is not a mere call for political stability and a comforting return to the middle ground of political sentiments — it is a cry of despair.

Even if identity politics continue, which will very likely be the case, the focus on building — or regaining, perhaps — an effective and inclusive state apparatus that prioritises rule of law and the cultural and economic well-being of the whole population should puncture for good the heretofore brazen use of racialist populism as a pretense for nation-building.


Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is executive director of the Penang Institute. His latest books include As Empires Fell: The Life and Times of Lee Hau-Shik, the First Finance Minister of Malaya (ISEAS 2020).

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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