October 20, 2014
Post NEP Malay Anxiety Induced Exclusivism (Part 1)
by Dr. Wong Chin Huat (10-19-14)@www.themalaysianinsider.com
The rise of communal exclusivism among the Malay-Muslims may not be so much because of ideational shifts than because of the deeply-rooted anxiety over the uncertainty in the post-New Economic Policy Malaysia.
And this calls for an alternative to “state partiality” as a solution to “socio-economic inequality”, a core idea in Malaya/Malaysia’s nation-building.
The inevitable rise of communal exclusivism
It’s heartening to read about a Muslim organising a “I want to touch a dog” programme for Muslims to overcome their fear of dog and, in a larger context, to bring down one of the many barriers that segregates Malaysians. It’s heartening because otherwise what we read in the news are more often about the rise of communal exclusivism, from more restrictions demanded in the name of “sensitivity” to the outright claim that Malaysia is a “Bumi Melayu Islam” (the Land of Malay-Muslims). I avoid using the term “extremism”, which should be reserved for advocacy of violence.
For many, this rise of communal exclusivism is a sad departure from a more inclusive Malaysia in earlier decades, some would say before Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s government. I hold a crueler view. It is simply as inevitable as the collapse of Soviet Union after its tremendous success in transforming Russia into a global super power.
State partiality to overcome socio-economic inequality
Think of it this way. Malaya/Malaysia, as the main successor state of British Southeast Asia, not only had a population that was diverse in origin, faith, language and culture.
Its cultural diversity largely overlaps with socio-economic inequality – with the ethnic minorities over-represented in modern economy and education than the ethnic majority, creating reinforcing cleavages. Such a situation posed a big challenge in decolonisation – will independence lead to the dominance of the ethnic minorities and the further marginalisation of the ethnic majority?
If so, prolonged colonisation could buy time for the backward majorities to build themselves up.This was not only the argument raised by many Bornean leaders against the hasty Project Malaysia, for fear of dominance by Malayans and Singaporeans.
The call for Malaya’s independence was first made by the communists and leftists – including the Malays – before it was adopted by UMNO and the Alliance.
One way to avoid the marginalisation of ethnic majority after decolonisation is simply denying the ethnic minorities franchise, which was basically why the Malayan Union introduced in 1946 – a multi-ethnic unitary state – was staunchly opposed by the Malays and eventually replaced by the Persekutuan Tanah Melayu in 1948 – a more ethnocratic federation.
The argument for excluding the ethnic minorities was based on their refusal to be assimilated linguistically and religiously. One may phrase the debate as one on the 1946 Question – “can the citizens be different yet equal?” and see its centrality in Malaya/Malaysia’s political history.
The communist insurgency broke out in 1948 however denied the British and the Malay elite the luxury of delaying decolonisation.The pragmatic solution was “state partiality” in favour of the Malays as a response to their collective disadvantage in “social inequality”.
The Malays were given constitutionally enshrined “special status” in exchange of citizenship and economic freedom for the non-Malays. The non-Malays were given qualified religious and linguistic freedom – they can practise their faiths but any conversion has to be one-way street in favour of Islam, and they can keep their mother-tongue schools but these schools are to be gradually phased out through purposeful marginalisation and negligence.
This was the so-called Merdeka Compromise – minimum disruption to the status quo to satisfy everyone with a gradualist soft assimilation goal to pacify the Malay nationalists.
Rise of the NEP state
Of course, the Merdeka Compromise failed to make everyone happy. Much to the chagrin of UMNO’s leadership, while Chinese-based opposition parties picked up more seats by avoiding multi-cornered contests, the Malay voters deserted UMNO in large numbers.
In 1964, PAS won two votes for every five votes won by UMNO. In 1969, PAS won two votes for every three by UMNO. The Merdeka Compromise was too slow to lift the Malays economically or culturally. The May 13 riot and the subsequent Emergency Rule provided the convenient and necessary juncture for UMNO under Tun Razak to reorganise Malaysia.
Officially, the New Economic Policy (NEP) was an economic policy to eliminate poverty and to restructure society. Unofficially, it represented a completely different policy paradigm. It was to affirm the Malays politically, economically, linguistically, religiously and culturally so that they could feel the benefit of independence – that they are the master of this country. The non-Malays can be on board to share power but they shall never dictate or have real veto power.
In that sense, the first Malaya/Malaysian state born on 1957 ended in 1969. The NEP was more than a policy for Malaysia. Rather, Malaysia was a state for the NEP. The policy officially ended in 1990, but its spirit lives on in other names, earning it the moniker “Never-Ending Policy”.
The “Malayanisation” of the Malaysian state and society has certainly alienated the non-Malays, who responded with brain drain and capital flight.This was the expected cost – and it may not be undesirable if the voids would be filled up quickly with Malay talents and Malay capitals.
Politically, up until 2008, the non-Malays – more precisely – alternated their response by dividing their votes between the ruling coalition and the opposition, with pendulum shifts between the two camps in response to UMNO’s restrictive or reconciliatory moves.
It frustrated the UMNO elite that the Chinese refused to be subjugated but the Chinese support for the opposition was at most a nuisance except for the 1990 and 2008 elections. Constituency delineation ensured that their political weight – on solo– is insignificant.
Post NEP Malay Anxiety Induced Exclusivism (Part 2)
Long and painful decline of the NEP State
The Achilles’ heel for the NEP state was, in management’s term, the agency problem. The person mandated to do something – the agent – does not act in the best interest of the person who places the mandate – the principal – but rather pursues his/her own interest.
If the NEP state elite – from politicians, bureaucrats to state enterprise managers – have no private interests but only pursue the Malay agenda, then 20 years would be enough for the state to empower all marginalised Malays and groom all talented Malays.
And the lifting of the Malays would induce pluralism and open up the political space for the NEP state to be phased out. But the NEP state is virtually a one-party state. State partiality to the Malays (vis-à-vis the non-Malays) does not mean state impartiality to all Malays. Rather, it means partiality to UMNO Malays, more precisely, those with the right connection and family ties.
To benefit maximally from the NEP state, a Malay needs not only to support UMNO in the general election, but also to support the right factions in UMNO elections. Family ties matters. Old boy fraternity matters. Business partnership matters.
Like in China’s one-party state, “guanxi” (connection) is an important currency for charting political and economic fortunes in UMNO.This leads to three inherent problems threatening the long-term survival of the NEP state.
First, it weakens the nation’s competitiveness with its failure in promoting meritocracy and curbing rent-seeking. Plagued by cronyism, the Malays simply cannot build up their strength to fill up the void left by the non-Malays.
Second, it replaces inter-ethnic inequality between the Malays and the non-Malays with intra-ethnic inequality within the Malays, providing the social basis for the political division of Malays.
Third, the factionalism in UMNO leads to schism at times of economic crisis, producing new parties like Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s Parti Semangat 46 (S46) in 1990 and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Nasional/Rakyat in 1999. These parties then helped bring together PAS and DAP, the two grand opposition parties with rather opposite programmes.
Combining these three factors, the NEP state has been rigorously challenged in 1990, 1999, 2008 and 2013 in the span of six elections. If Pakatan Rakyat is not broken before GE14, it would be the fifth challenge.
It would be wishful thinking for anyone to think that UMNO will rule forever and Dr Mahathir can be the father of a future Prime Minister like Tun Razak. But the ending of the NEP state puts too much at stake. It does not just trouble UMNO elite and dynasties. Many ordinary Malays – middle class and working class – conditioned and convinced by the NEP state that they cannot live without it are also worried.
If more than four decades of NEP state cannot lift the Malays effectively, what will happen if the non-Malays are treated more fairly once Pakatan Rakyat comes into power? Will Malays not be worse off?
Putting the foot down that Malay-Muslims control this country hence becomes important for the Malays. The rise of Perkasa and now more powerful Isma is a reflection of this mentality. UMNO’s stern stand on the “Allah” issue can be understood in this light.
By harping on the Malays’ sense of insecurity, the ultra-right outsourced agents of UMNO’s ethno-nationalism has been successfully pushing PAS – more precisely, its conservative action – to outdo Umno in playing to the gallery.
This explains the revival of the hudud agenda and the obsession to try to ban everything from Valentine’s Day to Oktoberfest. The backlash against DAP and PKR leaders joining the fest has less to do with morality than the frustration of seeing the non-Malays’ defiance of PAS.
If it had been driven by morality, why did PAS invite three Chinese supporters to drink cans of beers in its operation room in Wakaf Tapai in Marang (Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang’s constituency) during the 2008 elections? Where were today’s protesters then?
It’s time we face the elephant in the room. Until the Malays can overcome their anxiety on how they may fare in a post-NEP Malaysia, the non-Malays will see more protests in the name of “sensitivity”. It’s time we think deep on an alternative to a flawed solution – state partiality – to a real problem – socio-economic inequality.