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The Anatomy of Disunity in Malaysia

By Ooi Kee Beng, in The Edge Malaysia (Picking on the Present), 26-31 March 2023

WE GET TO know what White is by knowing what Black is, and then deepen our understanding of them by fathoming how the two interact. The same goes for Unity, the operative term in Malaysian governance today, and understanding it requires us to think about Disunity as well.

Thanks to the inability of each of the three major political coalitions to gain a parliamentary majority on their own, following the November elections last year, a radical solution had to be sought. And this time, what East Malaysians thought had to be taken more seriously than ever before.

Following prompting from the Agung, the idea to form a unity government was quickly mooted; and so, Voila! Malaysia now not only has a Unity Government but one that  commands a parliamentary super majority, and is run by Anwar Ibrahim, a man whose international reputation as a Malaysian reformist leader is second to none, and whose Reformasi Movement had been a major force in transforming the country since 1998.

But sadly, those to whom the idea of Unity undermines their claim to political popularity, have been out in force in recent weeks, doing all they can to rouse negative emotions against any collaboration across religious and ethnic lines. And as we know, there is almost no bottom to the barrel when you wish to stir up the basest sentiments in humans.

And so, while administered by a Unity Government, four months after the elections, Malaysians are being bombarded by attempts to crush the unity government project. Given that the country has reached so critical point a point that a unity government had to be formed to avert chaos, one has to wonder what those who are now sowing disunity actually want? Why are they so desperate, and why is the soil of Malaysia so fertile for sowing disunity?

Wherein lies the propensity for disunity in the Malaysian body politic? This question needs to be properly explored if the determination among certain leaders to turn Malaysians against each other at this crucial point in the country’s history is to be nullified.

To seek unity, you recognize disunity to be existing, which you wish to overcome. That much is true. Equally true is that if you seek disunity, you recognize unity to be existing, and wish it broken.

Historical and Conceptual Schisms

Since we are talking about national unity, we have to consider the geopolitical history of the country first. Malaysia is a strange configuration. Not only is it in two distinct parts, separated by 640 miles of the South China Sea, each of these parts consists of rather distinct sections as well. In the east, we have the states of Sabah and Sarawak, each with their own origins, histories and demographies.

In the west, one can distinguish the states that constituted the colony of the Straits Settlements, i.e. Penang, Melaka and Singapore (the last gone independent of Malaysia since 1965), apart from the states whose administration was centralised by the British between 1874 and 1896, i.e. Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang, which in turn were separate from Johor, with its unique history, and from the states to the north pried from the historical grip of the Kingdom of Siam, i.e. Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Trengganu.

And running down the middle of the peninsula is the Main Range of mountains, separating the history and demography of settlers on the east coast from those on the west.

A common wisdom taught in schools today is how deeply geography decides politics—and culture. Thus, the geographical schisms mentioned above tended to define separate paths for each their political history.

Differences can lead to violence and chaos, and so one may seek to unite in order to mitigate that tendency. But uniting parts that are too different always risks spawning critical resistance. In fact, what we see in the history of these parts that now constitute the Federation of Malaysia is a lively process of uniting and disuniting. One process generates the other, and it does no longer matters which one came first.

Looking back from the vantage point of 2023, purveying all the parts that now make up Malaysia, we perceive pendulum swings between unity and disunity, with each movement never fully succeeding.

While the British extended their power by various means, overt and covert, the Japanese united the region with open force in 1941–45. This accentuated inter-ethnic tensions on the peninsula. The British decided to rule the peninsula in 1946 with the ill-fated Malayan Union which lost them the trust of the Malays.

The Federation of Malaya agreement that followed in 1948 alienated the non-Malays, and only a consociationalism exercised through the Alliance Model could provide hope of sufficient unity for independence to be gained by 1957.

The expansion into the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, uniting West and East Malaysia challenged that model, leading to a disunity that led to the separation of Singapore in 1963.

From that point onwards, the territorial integrity of the country seemed determined, and the unity–disunity process became very much the nation-building process. The disunity oriented around the question “What nation is being built?”.

The New Economic Policy was to settle that question by transforming the socio-economics of the Malaysian population, which in effect was a hotchpotch of different origins, histories and demographies, in order to balance the differences sustainably and effectively.

And all this had to happen within a global context that was always in flux.

Seen over time, the Malaysian project is an unending one marked by attempts at unity in turn generating disunity. Thus, Malaysian political development appears to move two steps ahead only to move one step back, or one step ahead only to move two steps sideways, and so on and so forth.

But can this gyrating process continue forever? Where the building of the national economy and the building of social harmony are concerned, it is certainly not efficient.

Can Anwar Ibrahim’s unity government break this karma which has plagued Malaysia for so long? It has the numbers in parliament, which is really all it needs in order to carry out reforms.

But what should these reforms be? What should they be for? The simple answer, given our history, is that they be for stemming the dynamics of disunity. If that can be done, Unity will take care of itself.

Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include Catharsis. A Second Chance for Democracy in Malaysia. Homepage: Wikibeng.com.


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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