The End of Ethno-centric Elite Rule in Malaysia

December 11, 2018

The End of Ethno-centric Elite Rule in Malaysia

by Ooi Kok Hin
Image result for pakatan harapan government

The May 1969 clashes…again reaffirmed the UMNO-MCA-MIC “historic bargain” as the cornerstone of the new Malaysian nation. Whether the “bargain” will continue to form the basis of Malaysian politics and society indefinitely in the future remains to be seen.

– Cheah Boon Kheng, Red Star Over Malaya

For over 60 years, Malaysians only knew one power-sharing formula: consociationalism, in which the elites from each ethnic group in a plural society are presumed to represent that ethnic group, and form a government by consensus-building. Writing in 1969 – the year Malaysia had a bloody ethnic riot – political scientist Arend Lijphart described consociational democracy as “government by elite cartel designed to turn a democracy with a fragmented political culture into a stable democracy”.[1]

Lijphart identified four devices of consociational democracy: government by grand coalition, mutual veto, proportionality, and segmental autonomy.[2] The elites form a grand coalition by gathering political cooperation from the various significant groups in a fragmented, plural society. This coalition forms the foundation of a consociational arrangement. Mutual veto ensures protection from and for each group. Proportionality is reflected in a group’s representation in, or allocation of resources by, the government. And finally, segmental autonomy can be given to the variant groups either in terms of territorial governance or certain key areas of life (education, cultural identity, language, etc.). The grand coalition is the most important and distinguishable feature of consociational democracy, and the other three devices are supplementary.[3]

Barisan Nasional (BN) embodied consociationalism. It was a grand coalition formed chiefly of three parties – the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) – and it ruled the country with few serious threats to its hegemony. For the most part, each component political party in BN appealed to a specific electorate by ethnicity. For a long time, the grand coalition appeared to work.  BN was the world’s longest continuously elected government (63 years from 1955 to 2018, if we include its predecessor, the Alliance, and the first pre-Independence General Election), until  the General Election of the 9 May 2018, known as GE14.

In GE14, BN lost all but two state governments (Pahang, smack in the middle of the Peninsular, and tiny Perlis). UMNO lost power, and its coalition partners were annihilated from Parliament. The collapse didn’t stop at electoral setback: political parties gave up on the sinking ship, leaving the once 13-strong coalition with only three members. Departures included the once multiracial Gerakan and four Sarawak parties, the most significant being Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB).


The Secretary-General of UMNO, Annuar Musa, recently called for the suspension of the BN coalition to explore other political partnerships, most likely with the Islamist party, PAS.[4] MCA Deputy President (and its sole surviving Member of Parliament) Wee Ka Siong, said the Chinese party should no longer “live for others and bear the brunt [of criticism] for UMNO” and that “BN has ceased to exist except only in name”.[5]

UMNO Supreme Council member, Nazri Abdul Aziz, was more blunt. He declared that UMNO wished to go it alone and “BN is as good as gone”.[6] UMNO President, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, admitted that BN will need to undergo “rebranding” after the “horrific defeat”.[7]

Consociationalism as we know it is over. In this essay, I revisit this once seemingly irreplaceable “cornerstone” of Malaysian society to ask: what happened to consociationalism, how did it emerge and become the dominant power-sharing arrangement in Malaysia, and why did it collapse?

The emergence of consociationalism: Triumph of the elites


For a deeper examination of the historical context leading to the emergence and triumph of consociationalism in Malaysia, please refer to this accompanying article.

The Japanese Occupation (1942-45) set the stage for the birth of consociationalism. Ethnic relations were largely peaceful during the British colonial period. Despite growing native anxiety over rapid immigration, ethnic conflict were contained chiefly due to the colonial segregationist policies. The Japanese Occupation changed the nature of ethnic relations in Malaya and left a permanent scar in ethnic conflict.

The emergence and adoption, in the period after 1946, of a consensus-building, power-sharing formula that aimed at political stability, must be understood in the context of deadly ethnic conflict that had occurred in recent memory and left an indelible scar on ethnic relations.

At the same time the Japanese co-opted Malays into local administration and security forces, they committed massacres – murders, rapes, and brutality – towards the Chinese. This sets the stage for inter-ethnic clashes between the mostly Chinese ‘“resistance guerillas’” and the mostly Malay “co-opted collaborators.”[8]In the political vacuum after the Japanese surrender, the social tension escalated into violent ethnic conflict. In terms of both scale (death tolls) and widespread (areas), the 1945-6 ethnic conflict was deadlier than than the May 13, 1969 ethnic riot.

Thus, the emergence and adoption, in the period after 1946, of a consensus-building, power-sharing formula that aimed at political stability, must be understood in the context of deadly ethnic conflict that had occurred in recent memory and left an indelible scar on ethnic relations.

Secondly, rivalries within the ethnic groups also contributed to the eventual adoption of the ethnic power-sharing formula. With the political victory of the elites in both major ethnic communities (Malay and Chinese), and their rivals repressed and isolated, the elites were able to claim legitimacy to represent their respective communities.

At the time, within each of the Malay and Chinese communities, political activity  generally coalesced into two general opposing groups. In  the Malay community, these were the traditional elite class of English-educated aristocrats on the one hand, and the leftist Malay nationalists on the other. Among the Chinese, they were the elite capitalist class of towkays(mostly merchants and financiers) on the one hand, and the resistance group Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) on the other.

In both cases, the elites emerged triumphant to claim legitimacy for political leadership. Many young Chinese identified with MPAJA during the brutal Japanese Occupation, but it was disbanded after the war. The leading left-wing party, the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) was accused of working to overthrow the government; the British declared “Emergency” in response and crippled the party. The Chinese capitalist class was able to fill in the political vacuum through the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA), whose creation had been encouraged by British to counter the influence of MCP. MCA brought together three strands of elite Chinese: the merchants, the Chinese school intelligentsia, educationalists, and the affluent English-speaking Straits Chinese.[9]

The Malay elites consisted of the traditional ruling class and aristocrats. Onn Jaafar, the founder of UMNO, was a scion of the most elite family in Johor. His father was the first Menteri Besar (Chief Minister) of Johor and the family has close associations with the Johor palace. Onn Jaafar was educated in England and at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK), widely regarded then as the best school in the country. The second and third UMNO Presidents, Tunku Abdul Rahman and Abdul Razak Hussein, were a prince from Kedah and a Pahang aristocrat respectively. To date, of UMNO’s seven presidents, only two have come from an non-aristocratic  background.[10]

This class of traditional elites seized political leadership of the Malay community, mobilising Malay opposition to the Malayan Union and negotiating independence. The alternatives to Malay political leadership were, like their Chinese counterparts, repressed by the British. The anti-colonialist Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM) aided the Japanese and gained stature as the de facto patron for the Malay community during the Japanese Occupation, but lost clout after the Japanese surrender. Some of their leaders went on to form Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM), composed and supported (according to historian Ahmat Adam) mostly by people with peasant, non-aristocratic backgrounds, in contrast to UMNO. Like the MCP, they faced a British crackdown during the Emergency, giving gave the traditional elite in UMNO a monopoly of Malay political leadership.

The triumph of the elites paved the way for elite-initiated cooperation between the two ethnic communities. Consociationalism began in earnest in the 1952 Kuala Lumpur municipal election and consolidated its position as the prefered power-sharing formula in the 1955 federal election. The ethnic-based Alliance coalition triumphed over the multiracial party led by Onn Jaafar (For details on this, see the accompanying article).

In the first half of the 1950s, consociationalism won the day over multiracial politics. The differences between the ethnic groups were preserved, and the electorate chose to be represented through the elites of their ethnic community.

Having survived the challenge from multiracialism in the 1950s, consociationalism had to contend with intense “outbidding” on ethnic issues in the late 1960s. For example, the 1967 legislation to make Malay the sole national language alienated non-Malay MCA supporters, who felt the Alliance was moving to the Malay right. Yet the Malay masses were frustrated by the Tunku administration’s gradualist approach, rather than drastic state intervention, to improve their material well-being.

The legitimacy of the elites’ claims to community leadership was seriously eroded by their performance. The Chinese party commanded only 13.5% of the total votes and 13 out of 33 contested seats.[11] UMNO too suffered;[12]the Alliance received only 54.2% of the Malay votes, down from 67.2% in 1964. This does not suggest less popularity among Malays than non-Malays, but the fact that the vote swing occurred within both communities indicated that  Consociationalism was in crisis.

The second Prime Minister, Abdul Razak Hussein, diffused the crisis through carrots and sticks. He doubled down on the Alliance consociational coalition by co-opting several opposition parties, and also ethnic parties from Sabah and Sarawak, into a new coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN). His administration also passed a slew of legislation criminalising any act, speech or publication on fundamental issues such as Bumiputera special rights, non-Malay citizenship, the position of Islam and Malay as the sole national language, and affirmative action. By doing so, Razak curtailed the democratic rights of citizens and their elected representatives to debate and question government policies and legislation on these important political issues. Yet he was able to cement the ethnic elites’ loosening grip on their political leadership over their community. His actions also shielded his radical affirmative action plan, the New Economic Plan (NEP), from critics.


The balance of power in BN’s consociationalism after 1969 was tilted to UMNO as the dominant component party, in contrast to the Alliance’s consociationalism where power was more evenly distributed. As an example, the powerful portfolio of Ministry of Finance was never again given to MCA after the second Razak cabinet. Another important development was that UMNO was no longer financially reliant on MCA for election operatives and expenses.

The “mutual veto” device identified by Lijphart was greatly eroded. The grand coalition, however, survived and expanded. Consociationalism continued a largely uninterrupted domination over Malaysian politics until 2008.

Cracks in the wall: 2008, 2013 and 2018

Image result for pakatan harapan government

March 8, 2008 was a watershed moment in Malaysian history, at least equal to the 1969 election in significance. Barisan Nasional (BN) lost its two-thirds majority and ceded power in five states, including the two most industrialised and richest states, Selangor and Penang. There was some fear of rioting, which had marked the last political upheaval of this scale. But that was averted when the political parties wisely eschewed a victory parade and some elite leaders made a clear concession speech, including appeals for peaceful transition.

The 2008 election was a breakdown in the political order, but not tantamount to crisis as in 1969. There was no suspension of Parliament, no riot or emergency (such as that which had led to the formation of the National Operations Council in 1969), no new nationalist programme or consolidation of power through a new grand coalition (as with BN’s formation in 1973). The wounded regime would drag on for another ten years. Many accounts of this election agree[13] that at the time, UMNO’s dominance in BN had reached an unchecked level, allowing the party to get away with overt racism, their non-Malay allies notwithstanding. BN’s consociationalism functioned less as equal power-sharing than as “an electoral one-party state”.[14]

This dominance and aggression amplified the contradiction within the model of consociationalism. As the ethnic Malay party appealed to its base, it threatened the base of its non-Malay allies.


Nothing captured the folly of this arrogance more than the UMNO General Assembly in 2005. In the midst of fiery speeches by UMNO delegates defending “the Malay agenda”, then BN and UMNO Youth Chief, Hishammuddin Hussein Onn, waved the kerisdagger (a symbol of Malay heritage) – an act captured by television and the infant blogosphere. While theoretically defensible as a proud display of heritage, in that context, during that period, it was a deeply political act, strengthening the perception that the non-Malay BN parties could not check the advance of an increasingly aggressive and rightward-turning UMNO. The mainstream media scurried to carry out damage control, and Hishammuddin later apologised. But it was too late. The image had deeply affected non-Malays.

Perhaps the 2004 General Election had given UMNO a feeling of invincibility. There, the party had won 110 seats (out of 219), enough to form a government by itself.[15] This dominance and aggression amplified the contradiction within the model of consociationalism. As the ethnic Malay party appealed to its base, it threatened the base of its non-Malay allies.

Thus, in 2008, the non-Malay electorate punished an aggressive UMNO by rejecting its non-Malay allies: MCA, Gerakan, and MIC. Except in some marginal seats, this would not hurt UMNO’s base, only their allies. UMNO saw the continuous rejection of their non-Malay allies as an ungrateful abandonment by non-Malay voters who, despite receiving government concessions and goodies from the UMNO-led government, tried to vote them out of power in droves. This sentiment was further amplified by Najib Razak’s failed overture to court the non-Malay votes from 2009 to 2013.

For three consecutive elections, MCA had a catastrophic showing. When elites fail to command legitimacy for political representation, consociationalism fell apart. MCA party workers and volunteers were noticeably older than their rivals.

When he took over the premiership in April 2009, Najib launched a national unity initiative, 1Malaysia. Various government departments and programmes were launched, including a full-fledged public relations campaign with its own logo, clips worn by all civil servants, salutations, and even an official song. For a while, the racial overtones that had begulfed BN seemed to be water under the bridge. To help MCA court Chinese voters, Najib visited Chinese radio stations and appeared in Chinese New Year videos. He briefly toyed with the idea of reviewing pro-Malay affirmative action and liberalising the Bumiputera quota. But these gestures ended on the night of the 13thGeneral Election in 2013.

After the result was announced, a visibly disappointed Najib told the media that it was a “Chinese tsunami”.[16]The next day, the UMNO-owned Utusan daily charged on the front page: “Apa lagi Cina mahu?” (“What More Could The Chinese Want?”)

Stung by what they perceived as a harsh rejection, UMNO changed tack. Najib no longer tried as hard to court non-Malay votes. Instead, he went to the conservative Malays, even dangling RUU 355 in front of the Islamist party PAS – this bill, if passed, would have allowed the Kelantan state government to implement hudud law, jeopardising Najib’s non-Malay allies. He enacted a slew of pro-Bumiputera programmes, including a new dedicated unit to oversee a pro-Bumiputera agenda.[17]

Downward spiral and captive community

How can these events be understood in terms of the model of consociational democracy? This model emphasises the role of social (ethnic) elites. The events surrounding the 2008 election demonstrate what happened when one or more of the elites lost their legitimacy as representatives of their ethnic group.

First came a downward spiral of destruction from within. It started with the leadership of the dominant party failing to restrain the more militant and extremist elements in their party from overtly aggressive behaviours that alienated the bases of their allies. This caused the non-Malay parties in BN to lose electorally. Their resulting weakened representation and lack of legitimacy further reduced their bargaining power within the BN coalition – which in turn increased the perception of their inertia and meekness in the eyes of the non-Malay electorate. Finally, the dominant party ignored the fate of their minority allies, pursuing risky political behaviours that jeopardised the interests of their allies. This downward spiral might have also occurred in 1969, if not  for Razak’s crucial intervention after the riot, which presented him with the opportunity to consolidate power.

Second, the elites held their communities captive, subjecting them to threats of punitive material deprivation by the government. The historical May 13 riot was brandished as a warning of the potential consequences of destabilised consociationalism. The MCA under the leadership of Chua Soi Lek also threatened to refuse  government appointments if the party did not win enough seats.[18] After MCA’s dismal performance in the 2013 election, Chua followed up on this by refusing to take up any cabinet posts. For the first time, no ethnic Chinese from MCA was a member of the cabinet. (Only one minister, Paul Low, a senatorial appointment from Transparency International, was ethnically Chinese.)[19]

This demonstrated how, in consociationalism, an ethnic group is held captive by tying their fate with that of the elite’s. Should they vote for any candidate other than the ethnic elites ‘assigned’ to represent them in the ruling coalition, they risk being left out of – and penalised by – that ruling coalition in government. Rather than treating elections as a performance evaluation for the rulers and an expression of popular will, consociationalism can penalise the community which shows its dissatisfaction with the elite rule.

A BN election campaign event in which lucky draws were held and goodies distributed to attract attendance. The crowd was mostly middle-aged. Perhaps a sign of the past – BN, ethnic-based parties, May 13 generation – desperately reaching out for relevance.

Without power to hold the coalition together – which it just about did after 2008, despite a crippling result – this may be the end of BN. In the 2018 election, BN lost almost the entire peninsular, and MCA won only one parliamentary seat, with a thin majority. All but three parties have abandoned the coalition. In the Balakong by-election, MCA announced a unilateral decision to contest under the party logo (not BN’s) for the first time ever (and they still lost). If we have seen the last of BN, what might emerge in its place?

After consociationalism:  deliberative democracy and new power-sharing

The end of BN rule is an end of an era. The new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government is made up of four parties – Bersatu, PKR, DAP, and Amanah – with an ally in Warisan in Sabah. But does PH represent a new form of power-sharing – hopefully, through deliberative democracy[20] – or merely a new form of consociationalism?

PH cannot be said to be consociationalist in the sense of power-sharing between elites from each major ethnic group. Three of its constituent parties are Malay-Muslim majority (one is exclusively Bumiputera, and another limits full membership rights to Muslims). Unlike BN, the four parties do not strictly split their electorate appeals according to an ethnic division of labour. They are not free from ethnic politics and elitism – identity politics still feature, and many of the leaders are elites splintered from the previous establishment. However, PH retains some elements of consociational democracy, such as a grand coalition (though not as encompassing as Barisan Nasional previously, which included local ethnic parties in East Malaysia) and proportionality (the non-Malay representation in PKR and DAP). But the significant breakthrough is that political representation in PH is not defined and allocated through ethnic elites.

How the opposition parties regroup in the new political landscape will determine the type and territories of contestation in the 15thGeneral Election, due by 2023. As always, Malay politics will be the centre of any coalitional politics. Even prior to PH, the various attempts to form coalitions between opposition parties – Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah in 1990 and Barisan Alternatif in 1999 – were also led by Malay parties. The current opposition in Parliament are likewise Malay-Muslims from UMNO and PAS. It seems probable that they will continue their cooperation, given their overlapping interests and the electoral incentives to ensure a straight fight in a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system.

The banner reads, “Return to Islam”. The collapse of BN’s consociationalism may pave the way for an UMNO-PAS cooperation as advocates for Malay Muslim nationalism.

This is likely to occasion what political scientist Dr. Wong Chin Huat called Malay-Muslim Nationalism (MMN), a convergence of two strands of nationalism as championed by PAS (Muslim nationalism) and UMNO (Malay nationalism). If so, identity politics will dominate for the next five years. In the first three months of PH rule, this has already been the case, with major controversies including the appointments of a non-Malay Christian as Attorney General and the first non-Muslim Chief Justice, as well as a PH minister’s remark that allegedly implied Malays too are “pendatang” (immigrants). The government’s proposal to recognise the UEC (an examination system administered by private independent Chinese schools) caused the first student-led protest in post-BN rule. A week later, at a mass demonstration of several thousands, called Himpunan Kebangkitan Ummah (Gathering for Muslim Revival), organisers claimed that the interests of Malay-Muslims are in danger.[21]

The impact of MMN on coalitional politics is clear: Malay-Muslims must be the paramount political class, and any others relegated to a secondary class. PAS President, Hadi Awang, has articulated this most explicitly, saying that only people who adopt the national ideology and faith (Islam) shall decide national policies.[22] As any Non-Malay parties that join this opposition bloc will need to concede to these MMN-influenced demands, it is difficult to see how they can be popular with the non-Malay electorate.

Several factors affect whether this comes to pass. First,  the fragile health of Hadi Awang. PAS under his leadership is unlikely to form a political pact with any parties that are in a political alliance with DAP, leaving only UMNO as the biggest potential partner. But if Hadi exits the political landscape before the next election, it may open up new possibilities of alliance.

Second, there are the positions of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim, the designated Prime Minister-in-waiting. Mahathir’s age acts as a natural term-limit to the premiership.  The impending transition of power will affect the position of Mahathir’s party, the two-year-old Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), which has only slightly more than a quarter of the seats in Parliament held by Anwar’s party (13 against 50). PPBM’s top two leaders, Mahathir and Muhyddin Yassin (who is recovering from an operation to remove a tumour and chemotherapy) are vulnerable and it has no obvious successor.

The current cabinet is quite evenly distributed among the four PH parties, but this may change when Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad gives way to Anwar. The head of the executive will then come from PKR, which also has the most legislative seats (by contrast, Mahathir’s Bersatu has the second fewest among PH parties). PKR has made it clear that they should be granted more cabinet ministers too.

Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) is a multiracial party with the largest number of seats in Parliament. Led by Anwar Ibrahim, the designated Prime Minister-in-waiting, this party’s positioning on identity politics reflect the temperature of the average voter and may determine the fate of the Pakatan Harapan government.

PKR is a multiracial party which relies on non-Malay support in mixed seats. If Anwar courts the Malay right to consolidate power, his party will suffer electorally. At the same time, Anwar needs to maintain a sufficient threshold of Malay support in the face of the MMN challenges. This delicate balance might deter the new government from implementing truly significant breakaways from the past – the reconstruction of New Economic Policy, university quotas and ethnic-based admission, a complete ban on child marriage, curtailing the power and size of an excessively large Islamic bureaucracy, and moral policing (in September, two women were publicly caned in Terengganu for “attempting to have lesbian sex”).

In contrast to the overcrowding of political parties competing for Malay electorate, there is little viable challenge to DAP (and to a certain degree, PKR) for the non-Malay electorate. This unhealthy lack of competition may replicate the non-Malay dilemma under BN’s consociationalism. This segment of the electorate may be unsatisfied with the government of the day, but find that any alternative party is aligned to the even more unattractive MMN. The return of local elections, promised by PH, is a welcome step to usher a healthy level of competition in a functioning democracy,[23] so that new political parties can emerge at the local level. The present barrier of entry is too high and smaller (local or regional) parties, like Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM), find it hard to survive and have any meaningful impact under the FPTP system. The proposed Electoral Reform Committee[24] is thus a welcome and crucial intervention.

The story of consociationalism is a story of Malaysia, a plural society forging paths ahead while dealing with ethnic differences. Consociationalism stabilised a plural society to render it governable and – with one or two exceptions – contained ethnic conflict from escalating into violent outbreak. But it is also closely tied to anti-democratic practices and consequences. The demise of Barisan Nasional’s ethnic-elite consociationalism may be celebrated as an end to elite-based ethnic politics, but history and events elsewhere counsel caution in approaching the vacuum that has been created. The heralding of racial progress in America and Indonesia following the first African American president and the first ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta respectively proved to be premature. Malaysia may have brought down the rule of an ethno-elite cartel, but the people of Malaysia must be vigilant to guard its democratic progress against potential backlash. They must also continue to demand accountability and transparency from their leaders to shape a Malaysia that is truly representative of the will of the people and which protects the basic democratic rights of its diverse citizenry.



[1] Lijphart, Arend. “Consociational democracy.” World Politics 21, no. 2 (1969): 207-225.

[2] Lijphart, Arend. Democracy in plural societies: A comparative exploration. Yale University Press, 1977.

[3] Mauzy, Diane K. “Consociationalism and coalition politics in Malaysia.” (1978). PhD thesis. The University of British Columbia. 1978.

[4] “BN needs to be suspended, says Umno.” The Malaysian Insight. 10 August 2018.

[5] “Ka Siong: MCA won’t carry water for UMNO anymore, BN only alive in name.” The Malay Mail. 2 June 2018.

[6] “Nazri: Umno better off alone, BN is a gone case.”Malaysiakini. 13 June 2018.

[7] “Umno and BN to undergo rebranding – Zahid.” New Straits Times. 1 July 2018.

[8] Cheah, Boon Kheng. Red Star Over Malaya: Resistance and social conflict during and after the Japanese occupation, 1941-1946. NUS press, 2012.,P40.

[9] Koon, Heng Pek. “Chinese Responses to Malay Hegemony in Peninsular Malaysia 1957-96.” Japanese Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 34, no. 3 (1996): 500-523.

[10] Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s family, while not related to the palace, is a privileged one. His grandfather was a prominent religious leader and nationalist, notably being a founding member of the Islamist party, PAS. Current UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s family migrated from Indonesia, while former president and current Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s family was of common background (His father was a school headmaster).

[11] Vasil, R.K. The Malaysian general election of 1969. Oxford University Press, 1972., as quoted inHeng’s article.

[12] Ratnam, K.J, and Milne, R.S. “The 1969 parliamentary election in West Malaysia.” Pacific Affairs 43, no. 2 (1970): 203-226.

[13] Gomez, Edmund Terence. “Resisting the fall: the single dominant party, policies and elections in Malaysia.” Journal of Contemporary Asia 46, no. 4 (2016): 570-590; Chin, James, and Wong Chin Huat. “Malaysia’s electoral upheaval.” Journal of Democracy 20, no. 3 (2009): 71-85.

[14] Wong, Chin-Huat, James Chin, and Norani Othman. “Malaysia–towards a topology of an electoral one-party state.” Democratization 17, no. 5 (2010): 920-949.

[15] Ong, Kian Ming. “Malaysian political parties and coalitions.” In Routledge handbook of contemporary Malaysia, pp. 44-57. Routledge, 2014.

[16] Grant, Jeremy. “Global Insight: Malaysia’s ‘Chinese tsunami’ puts Najib in a bind”. Financial Times.May 7, 2013.

[17] Naidu, Sumisha. “Najib places Bumiputera at centre of Malaysia growth plans as elections loom.” Channel News Asia. 19 April 2017.

[18] “Sad day if no Chinese rep in new government: Najib”. The Sun Daily. 27 April 2018; “Najib: Chinese will suffer from DAP’s ‘direct contest’ strategy against MCA and Gerakan”. The Star Online. 23 April 2018.

[19] After Liow Tiong Lai won the MCA presidency from Chua in 2014, there was a cabinet reshuffle in June 2014 to allow for the return of MCA into the cabinet. Liow was appointed Minister of Transport from then till GE14.

[20] Mohd Sani, Mohd Azizuddin. “The emergence of new politics in Malaysia from consociational to deliberative democracy.” Taiwan Journal of Democracy 5, no. 2 (2009): 97-125.

[21] “Thousands, including Rais Yatim, attend KL rally to defend Malay rights.” The Star Online. 28 July 2018.

[22] “Malaysia’s Islamist party PAS says only Muslims will make policy should it come to power.” The Straits Times. 2 February 2018.

[23] Cheng, Kenneth. “Restoring the People’s “Third Vote””. New Naratif. 2 August 2018.


Ooi Kok Hin

Ooi Kok Hin is Monbukagakusho scholar and research student at the Graduate School of Political Science, Waseda University and Research affiliate at Penang Institute.

Fear and Manipulation of the Malay mind

December 11 ,2018

Fear and Manipulation of the Malay mind

by Mariam Mokhtar

Image result for icerd malaysia

Some people claim that the winners in the anti-ICERD rally were the conservative Malay-Muslims, and the losers Pakatan Harapan (PH) and to a lesser extent UMNO.

I beg to differ.

The real winners are the bullies and racists who threaten violence simply to get their way. Ketuanan Melayu or Malay supremacy tactics were paramount at the rally, with displays of silat groups and banners reminding everyone that Malaysia belongs to the Malays.

Prayers at the rally for the destruction of the PH administration were childish and showed that these bullies lacked creativity and brains. If their taunts and threats fail, God’s name is invoked to perpetuate a culture of fear.

The true losers are Malaysians, particularly the Malays. Here was a golden opportunity for Malaysians to rebuild the nation as a united people, through meritocracy. But fear triumphed.

Malaysians are now forced to play second fiddle to a handful of insecure Malay-Muslims who cannot grow up and cannot tolerate others being their equals. These insecure, belligerent people are determined that Malaysia should live in a toxic atmosphere. Think of the jealous boyfriend or husband who says, “If I can’t have you, no one else can.”

If these insecure people cared to read history, they would find that the foundation of Malaya/Malaysia was built on the blood, sweat and tears of all races. PAS leader Hadi Awang said non-Malays should be grateful that the Malays allow them to live in Malaysia. But he is misinformed. The original settlers of both East and West Malaysia were the Orang Asli – and Malay-Muslims repay their generosity by trampling on their rights.

Bullies and racists may have triumphed this time, but the Malays should heed the hidden messages from the anti-ICERD rally.

The rally served only to distract Malaysians, especially the Malays. Over the past few weeks, several Malay leaders were arrested and charged with money laundering, abuse of power, and stealing from the people. The rally allowed them a brief respite where they tried to be heroes once again.

Individuals such as former Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife Rosmah Mansor may have felt like they regained their relevance, if only for an afternoon. They needed to remind the Malays that they champion their rights. The rally gave them ample opportunity to garner moral support from their sympathisers.

Interviews with people who attended the rally showed that some had no clue what ICERD means while others said the gathering was a relief from their day-to-day routines. The coach was free. They were allegedly given a small allowance, but it was still money in their hands. They were given free food and a chance to tell the folk in their villages that they had visited Kuala Lumpur.

The Malays in Malaysia are the poor relations of their cousins overseas. The Malays who have left Malaysia are confident and successful; they do not need crutches to survive. In the days before the ICERD issue, I met many middle-class and wealthy Malays who denounced the treaty as they believed ratifying it would mean the Malays losing their right to education. Have they been to schools where the dropout rate of Malays is high? Have they asked how the children perform at some Felda schools?

One professional Malay living and working in Malaysia claimed the special privileges of the Malays would be lost and Islam would be phased out if the ICERD were to be ratified. This person is perhaps oblivious to the fact that Malays who are spoon-fed become lazy and demotivated. Malays do not enjoy special privileges or a special position. There is nothing special about having a millstone around one’s neck.

A Malay engineer visited Dataran Merdeka in the early hours of the morning, before the rally started, to take a selfie. He disagreed with ICERD because he enjoys an Ali Baba work relationship. Others see him as a successful engineer, but would he agree to meritocracy and equality in the workplace?

After PH won GE-14, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad stood by his decision of Tommy Thomas as the Attorney-General. He was equally adamant that Lim Guan Eng should be the finance minister, yet when Malay extremists threatened to wreak havoc, he faltered. Why? Was he reverting to his Umno heredity or was this a politically expedient move?

PH carried the hopes and ideals of Malaysia Baru, but when it came to ICERD, it failed the people.

Why aren’t the Malays informed that ICERD is not the end of their little world? ICERD would have been the key to a more exciting future in which they would continue to play a positive role alongside other Malaysians. And their success would have been achieved under their own steam, through their brilliance and hard work.

 The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.


Rally shows need for a radical revamp of the curriculum

December 10,2018

Rally shows need for a radical revamp of the curriculum

by Dr.Azly Rahman@ www.

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Anti-ICERD rally a win for New Malaysia but a setback for Harapan’

December 9, 2018

Anti-ICERD rally a win for New Malaysia but a setback for Harapan’

by Lim Kit Siang  |  Published:  |  Modified:


MP SPEAKS | The peaceful holding of the anti-ICERD rally in Kuala Lumpur yesterday is a victory for New Malaysia but a setback to Pakatan Harapan.

As Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin rightly said after the rally, it was a demonstration that the Pakatan Harapan government will always respect the rights of the people to speak and assemble peacefully, as long as these rights are practised according to the provisions of the law and the Malaysian Constitution.

The former UMNO-BN government have never recognised, respected and upheld the constitutional and democratic right of Malaysians to speak and assemble peacefully, as witnessed what happened to the five Bersih rallies from 2007 to 2016 – Bersih 1 on November 10, 2007; Bersih 2 on July 9, 2011; Bersih 3 on April 28, 2012; Bersih 4 on August 29 and 30, 2015; and Bersih 5 on November 19, 2016.

But there is a major hitch – the organisers of the of the anti-ICERD in Kuala Lumpur did not want a New Malaysia, which was born on the historic day of May 9, 2018, to re-set Malaysian nation-building policies to save Malaysia from the trajectory of a rogue democracy, a failed state, a kakistocracy( cronyism+ and a global kleptocracy and awaits Malaysians to give it flesh, blood and soul to be a world top-class nation – united, democratic, just, progressive and prosperous – which may take one or two decades to accomplish.

The organisers of the anti-Icerd rally came to destroy and not to create a New Malaysia. I said it was a setback for the Pakatan Harapan to build a New Malaysia because yesterday’s rally would not have happened if the Harapan government had handled the Icerd issue better.

As constitutional law expert from Universiti Malaya, Professor Shad Faruqi, has stressed, most of the criticisms against ICERD have no legal basis.

He said: “However, as hate and fear are potent weapons in politics, the perpetrators have succeeded in polarising society and raising the spectre of violence.”

As Shad Faruqi has pointed out, Icerd is neither anti-Malay nor against the Malaysian Federal Constitution. Since yesterday, Malaysia has become the laughing stock of the Muslims in the world, as 99 percent of the 1.9 billion Muslims of the world live in 179 countries which have ratified ICERD, including 55 of the 57 Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) nations.

UKM research fellow, Dr. Denison Jayasooria, wrote a good article in Malaysiakini entitled: ‘Examining Icerd ratification among OIC members’, where he reviewed the ratification by OIC member states, including Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Palestine, and he concluded: “As far as I note, none of them has objections or placed reservations in the name of Islam.”

IiVERD ++ also does not undermine the power of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, resulting in the abolition of the system of Malay Sultans.

There are 38 countries with the monarchical system, out of which 36 countries have ratified the Icerd including the United Kingdom in 1969, Norway (1970), Sweden (1971), Denmark (1971), Netherlands (1971), Jordan (1974), Belgium (1975), Japan (1995), and Saudi Arabia (1997).

There are absolutely no indications that the ratification of ICERD by these 36 countries have undermined the monarchical system as to lead to their abolition.

But as Malaysia is a plural society, it is of utmost importance that the unity and harmony of our diverse races, languages, cultures and religions in Malaysia must be the paramount goal of the nation.

For this reason, Malaysia should not ratify ICERD until the majority of the races and religions in Malaysia are comfortable with it, support it and understand that it poses no threat to the various races, religions or the Federal Constitution but is a step forward to join the world in promoting human rights.

The Harapan government should not have allowed the organisers of the anti-Icerd rally to hijack, twist and distort the ICERD debate with the toxic politics of lies, hate, fear, race and religion to incite baseless fears that Icerd is anti-Malay, anti-Islam and anti-Malay Rulers, which camouflaged an agenda to allow those responsible for sending Malaysia into the trajectory of a rogue democracy, a failed state, a kakistocracy and a global kleptocracy to make a political comeback and to destroy efforts to re-set nation-building efforts to create a New Malaysia.

This is a lesson the Harapan government must learn quick and fast, or both Harapan and the great vision of a New Malaysia will be destroyed.

LIM KIT SIANG is Iskandar Puteri MP.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

Special Report

The ICERD Outrage

Malaysia is one of only two Muslim-majority countries in the world that have not ratified ICERD.

Book Review: Gandhi and the End of Empire

December 8, 2018

Book Review : Gandhi and the End of Empire

Image result for Gandhi

Two new books bring sharply different perspectives to bear on the history of British imperialism in India up until the end of the Raj in 1947. Together, they offer important insights into how national political identities can evolve on the basis of self-awareness or self-delusion.

NEW DELHI – The books under review both describe the people and events that shaped the final years of the British Raj in India, and demonstrate a magisterial command of their subject. But the similarities end there: these books could not be more different in the ground they cover or, ultimately, in their sympathies.

The first is by Ramachandra Guha, a well-known Indian historian whose previous works include an excellent biography of Mahatma Gandhi’s early life until 1914 (Gandhi Before India), and a historical survey of modern India following the Mahatma’s assassination in 1948 (India After Gandhi). Guha’s new book, Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948, fills the gap in between, describing the final three and a half decades in the life of a saintly nationalist hero who would eventually be remembered as the father of a newly independent India. By contrast, the Mahatma plays no role in The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience, the historian David Gilmour’s study of India’s colonial tormentors.

Gandhi’s Larger Truth

Gandhi, as we know, was the extraordinary leader of the world’s first successful non-violent movement against colonial rule. But he was also a philosopher committed to living out his own ideas, whether they applied to individual self-improvement or social change; hence the subtitle of his autobiography: “The Story of My Experiments with Truth.”

No dictionary definition of “truth” captures the depth of meaning that Gandhi found in it. His truth, Guha notes, emerged from his convictions, and contained not just what was accurate, but what was just and therefore right. Such truth could not be obtained by “untruthful” or unjust means, especially the use of violence.

Gandhi described his method as satyagraha, which literally means “holding on to truth,” or, as he variously described it, harnessing a “truth-,” “love-,” or “soul-force.” He disliked the English term “passive resistance,” because satyagraha required activism. To Gandhi, one who believes in truth and cares enough to obtain it cannot afford to be passive, and must be prepared to suffer actively for it.

Viewed in this way, non-violence – like the later concepts of non-cooperation and non-alignment – is not merely about renouncing violence, but about vindicating truth. In non-violence, suffering is intentionally taken upon oneself – instead of being inflicted on one’s opponents – because only by willingly accepting punishment can one demonstrate the strength of one’s convictions vis-à-vis one’s oppressors.

Guha details how Gandhi applied this approach to India’s movement for independence. Non-violence succeeded where sporadic terrorism and moderate constitutionalism had both failed. Gandhi showed the masses that freedom was a simple matter of right and wrong, and he furnished them with a form of resistance for which the British had no response.

Non-violent civil disobedience enabled Gandhi to expose the injustice of the law, giving him a moral advantage. By accepting his captors’ punishment, he held a mirror up to their brutality. And through hunger strikes and other acts of self-imposed suffering, he demonstrated the lengths to which he was prepared to go in defense of truth. In the end, he rendered the perpetuation of British rule impossible, by exposing the lie at the heart of imperialist paternalism.

An Enigmatic Life

Yet as Guha reminds us, Gandhi’s fight was not just against imperialism, but also against religious bigotry at home – a commitment that is very relevant to the current era. The descendants of Gandhi’s detractors on the Hindu right now hold power in India, and support for their brand of nationalism is at an all-time high. In their estimation, Gandhi went too far to accommodate Muslim interests. Within the jingoistic Hindutva movement, his pacifism is regarded as unmanly.

Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948

But Gandhi, an openly practicing and deeply committed Hindu, defended a version of the faith that was inclusive and universalist, and thus demanded respect for all other faiths. Gandhi was murdered for being too pro-Muslim, and yet he died with the name of the Hindu god Rama on his lips. In the event, he had just come out of a fast that was meant to pressure his own followers, the ministers of the new Indian government, into transferring a larger share of undivided India’s assets to the new state of Pakistan. (Much to the Pakistanis’ horror, Gandhi had also announced that he would spurn the country he had failed to keep united, and spend the rest of his years in Pakistan.)

Such was the enigma of Gandhi. An idealistic, quirky, quixotic, and determined man, he marched only to the beat of his own drum, and often got everyone else to pick up the same rhythm. It has been said that he was half saint, half Tammany Hall politician. Like the best crossbreeds, he managed to synthesize the qualities of his component parts while transcending their contradictions.

But the Mahatma had a personal life, too. Guha describes in some detail Gandhi’s intimate friendship with a married woman, Sarala Devi Chaudhurani (though there is no suggestion of a physical relationship). He also recounts the troubling story of Gandhi’s experiments in sleeping naked with young women (including his own grand-niece) to test his vow of celibacy. Though there can be no doubt about the purity of his intentions – Gandhi gave up sex at the age of 35 – nor can there be any question that such idiosyncratic behavior alienated many of his followers (and remains controversial today).

Still, nothing in Guha’s thorough account diminishes Gandhi’s greatness or the extraordinary and lasting resonance of his life and message. While the world was disintegrating into fascism, violence, and war, the Mahatma espoused the virtues of truth, non-violence, and peace, and left colonialism utterly discredited. Moreover, he set an example of personal conviction and courage that few will ever match. He was that rare leader who transcends the inadequacies of his followers.

India for the English

The British ruled India for centuries with unshakeable self-confidence, buttressed by protocol, alcohol, and a lot of gall. Stalin, for his part, found it “ridiculous” that “a few hundred Englishmen should dominate India.” Though his numbers were off, he was right in principle: the British Raj operated with remarkably few people. Even at the peak of the empire in 1931, there were just 168,000 Britons – including 60,000 in the army and police, and a mere 4,000 in civil government – to run a country of some 300 million people. The British in India never accounted for more than 0.05% of the population.

In his monumental book, Gilmour sheds light on how they did it. He delves meticulously into the lives of Britons who lived and worked in India over the course of “three centuries of ambition and experience.” (An Indian might be tempted to substitute “looting and racism” to describe the colonial period, but we won’t dwell on that.) A decade ago, in The Ruling Caste, Gilmour took readers on a similarly deep dive into the lives of the Englishmen who worked in the Indian Civil Service (ICS). But in his new volume, he has broadened the range substantially to include the soldiers, journalists, and “boxwallahs” (commercial classes), as well as the hunters who single-handedly decimated most of the subcontinent’s wildlife. In the case of the latter, they lived by the motto, “It’s a fine day, let’s go and kill something.”

In describing the social backgrounds of the young men whom Britain sent to govern its far-flung empire, Gilmour takes us through their examinations, training, postings, social lives, professional duties, and extracurricular (sometimes extramarital) activities. Much of this is familiar ground, notably trodden by the ICS’s own Philip Mason in his 1985 book The Men Who Ruled India. But Gilmour has pored over a wealth of private papers and unpublished correspondence, leaving his narrative enriched by an intimacy that humanizes his subjects.

More broadly, Gilmour explains how the British sustained their empire in India through an extraordinary combination of racial self-assurance, superior military technology, the mystique of modernity, the trappings of enlightened progressivism, and brute force. Of course, it should also be said that the British benefited a great deal from the cravenness, cupidity, opportunism, disunity, and lack of organized resistance on the part of the vanquished.

Paternalism and Oppression

The British were in India to do a job: to advance the strategic, commercial, and political interests of their home country. Interestingly, Gilmour notes that two-thirds of the viceroys in the six decades from 1884 had attended Eton, as had half of the governors of the richest province, Bombay. Elitism at home reinforced racism abroad.

The British in India

Though Indians were permitted to take the civil-service examination from 1868 onward, they were long relegated to inferior positions. As one viceroy, Lord Mayo, put it, “We are all British gentlemen engaged in the magnificent work of governing an inferior race.” Needless to say, few shared Queen Victoria’s “romantic feelings for brown skins.” In Gilmour’s telling, the British had no illusions about preparing Indians for self-government. Their view of Indians was paternalistic at best, but more often contemptuous. Well into the twentieth century, Britons on the subcontinent spoke and wrote of the need to treat Indians like “children” incapable of ruling themselves.

There were British families that served the empire in India over the course of several generations – some for more than 300 years – without ever establishing roots. They would often send their own children “home” for schooling while they “endured” years of separation from loved ones. But it was not all self-sacrifice and hard work. The British in India were afforded not just generous furloughs and a guaranteed pension, but also the highest salaries in the empire. Some found it “quite impossible” even to spend their income. It is little wonder that English political reformer John Bright once described the empire as a “gigantic system of outdoor relief for the aristocracy of Great Britain.”

British society in India was shamelessly committed to its own pleasures. The families and hangers-on of senior officials routinely withdrew to mountain redoubts for months on end. As they whiled away their time with dances, banquets, and social fripperies, the Indian people, well out of their sight, continued to be ruthlessly exploited. In the summer capital of Simla, for example, so-called grass widows took in the cooler air while their husbands stayed behind to toil in the hot plains. These socialites’ principal activities included gambling, drinking, dancing, and adultery – usually in that order.

Meanwhile, racism became entrenched, pervasive, and increasingly repugnant over time. But while Gilmour acknowledges the racism, he does not address its connection to British self-interest. The Indians were systematically shown their place, with even those in government service being condemned to inferior ranks, piddling pay, and scarce opportunities for career advancement. As independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, once said of the ICS, it was “neither Indian, nor civil, nor a service.”

White-Washed Imperialism

Gilmour writes accessibly, often wittily, and with a wealth of telling anecdotes to bring the story to life. But he is unforgivably non-judgmental toward his subjects. The British imperial system was hopelessly disconnected from the Indians in whose interests it claimed to govern. Yet the very foreignness that Indians regarded as an indictment of colonial rule, Gilmour takes for granted, sometimes even framing it as a virtue.

Accordingly, he presents his cast of characters not just impartially, but often in an affectionate, sardonic light. Rarely does it seem to have occurred to him that these same men were racist oppressors, or at the very least the embodiment of a larger system of iniquity and injustice.

As a result, The British in India comes across as a curiously old-fashioned book, oblivious to the post-colonial currents that have already upended its assumptions. Because Gilmour demonstrates little awareness of the Indian perspective toward the British, we never learn what the subjects actually thought about their subjugators. The growing political consciousness among Indians that Guha describes makes no appearance, even though it provoked a British reaction.

Gilmour also disregards the unforgivable British attitude toward famines. Yet the deaths of 35 million Indians as a result of British imperial policy would seem to undermine his portraits of glittering durbars and elegant soirees.

The fact is that the British did little to advance the welfare of the people they were exploiting. As foreign rulers, they were more concerned with stability. Their job was to ensure imperial profit, not Indian progress, which would have undermined imperial rule anyway. Britain’s presence in India was motivated principally by pillage and plunder, but you wouldn’t know that from Gilmour’s telling. Only an Englishman could write about an emotionally fraught subject like colonialism with such benign detachment.

In reality, by the early nineteenth century, the British had established themselves as a ruling caste not within Indian society, but on top of it. They did not intermarry or even dine with Indians. They lived in bungalows within exclusive cantonments or “Civil Lines,” well apart from the “Black Towns” where the locals lived. They ensconced themselves in little islands of Englishness in the hill stations, where they planted ferns and roses, and built cottages with nostalgia-suffused names like Grasmere Lodge in Udhagamandalam (which the British, unable to pronounce the name, re-baptized “Ooty”). They patronized whites-only social clubs from which even Indian ICS men were blackballed.

More to the point, the British in India sneered at the people whose oppression paid for their comforts. Their loyalties remained staunchly wedded to their faraway homeland. Neither they nor their children mingled with the “natives.” Their clothes, books, and ideas all came from Britain, and British interests always took priority over those of the Indians under their rule. For the most part, the Britons would return “home” at the end of their careers. As the English writer Henry Nevinson observed in 1907, “A handful of people from a distant country maintain a predominance unmitigated by social intercourse, marriage, or permanent residence.”

That was the life of the British in India. Gandhi led the revolt that brought their sordid sojourn to an end. Guha and Gilmour offer an indispensable portrait of the people on each side of the colonial drama. As an Indian, though, I have little doubt about who is the worthier subject.


I’m not calling to revive the WASP aristocracy. Just to learn from it.

December 8,2018

I’m not calling to revive the WASP aristocracy. Just to learn from it.

by Dr. Fareed Zakaria

Image result for george hw bush

The death of George H.W. Bush has occasioned a fair amount of nostalgia for the old American establishment, of which Bush was undoubtedly a prominent member. It has also provoked a heated debate among commentators about that establishment, whose membership was determined largely by bloodlines and connections. You had to be a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant to ascend to almost any position of power in the United States until the early 1960s. Surely, there is nothing good to say about a system that was so discriminatory toward everyone else?

Actually, there is. For all its faults — and it was often horribly bigoted, in some places segregationist and almost always exclusionary — at its best, the old WASP aristocracy did have a sense of modesty, humility and public-spiritedness that seems largely absent in today’s elite. Many of Bush’s greatest moments — his handling of the fall of communism, his decision not to occupy Iraq after the first Gulf War, his acceptance of tax increases to close the deficit — were marked by restraint, an ability to do the right thing despite enormous pressure to pander to public opinion.

But, and here is the problem, it is likely these virtues flowed from the nature of that old elite. The aristocracy was secure in its power and position, so it could afford to think about the country’s fate in broad terms, looking out for the longer term, rising above self-interest — because its own interest was assured. It also knew that its position was somewhat accidental and arbitrary, so its members adhered to certain codes of conduct — modesty, restraint, chivalry, social responsibility.

If at this point you think I am painting a fantasy of a world that never existed, let me give you a vivid example. On the Titanic’s maiden voyage, its first-class cabins were filled with the Forbes 400 of the age. As the ship began to sink and it became clear there were not enough lifeboats for everyone, something striking took place. As Wyn Wade recounts, the men let the women and children board the boats. In first class, about 95 percent of the women and children were saved, compared with only about 30 percent of the men. While, of course, first-class passengers had easier access to the boats, the point remains that some of the world’s most powerful men followed an unwritten code of conduct, even though it meant certain death for them.

Today’s elites are chosen in a much more open, democratic manner, largely through education. Those who do well on tests get into good colleges, then good graduate schools, then get the best jobs and so on. But their power flows from this treadmill of achievement, so they are constantly moving, looking out for their own survival and success. Their perspective is narrower, their horizon shorter-term, their actions more self-interested.

Most damagingly, they believe their status is legitimately earned. They lack some of the sense of the old WASP establishment that they were accidentally privileged from birth. So the old constraints have vanished. Today, chief executives and other elites pay themselves lavishly, jockey for personal advantage and focus on their own ascendancy.

The man who invented the term “meritocracy” did not mean it as a compliment. The British thinker Michael Young painted a dystopian picture of a society in which the new, technocratic elite, selected through exams, became increasingly smug, arrogant and ambitious, certain that modern inequality was a fair reflection of talent and hard work. Writing later about Tony Blair’s complimentary use of the term, Young warned that the prime minister was fostering a deeply immoral attitude toward those who were not being rewarded by the system, treating them as if they deserved their lower status.

President Trump uses a common refrain at his rallies to attack today’s elites and their arrogance. He focuses on their schooling and then says to the crowd, “They’re not elite. You’re the elite.” Trump has found a genuine vein of disgust among many Americans at the way they are perceived and treated by their more successful countrymen. The violent protests that have been happening in France are similarly fueled by rural, poorer people who believe that the metropolitan elites ignore their plight. The 2016 Brexit vote reflected the same revolt against technocrats.

Let me be clear. I — of all people — am not calling for a revival of the WASP establishment. I am asking, can we learn something from its virtues? Today’s elites should be more aware of their privilege and at least live by one simple old-fashioned, universal idea — rich or poor, talented or not, educated or uneducated, every human being has equal moral worth.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

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