The State and Ethnic Politics in Southeast Asia

By David Brown | Go to book overview

Chapter 6

Class, state and ethnic politics in Peninsular Malaysia

It has been noted that one of the ambiguities in the internal colonial explanation of ethnic nationalism concerns the relative roles of cultural distinctions and economic disparities in the formation of ethnic consciousness. To what extent is ethnicity a reactive response to economic inequalities and to what extent is it an autonomous expression of the cultural map? This issue is pursued more systematically in the debates as to the nature and manifestations of class consciousness. If ethnicity were to be portrayed as a derivative manifestation of class, then what kind of characterization of ethnic politics, and of the role of the state, would be implied?

The purpose of this chapter is therefore to see how a characterization of the state in terms of its relationship to the class structure might generate an explanation of ethnic politics. The discussion is conducted through an examination of ethnic politics in Malaysia, since Malaysian politics has attracted a significant literature influenced by the class perspective that offers, at least potentially, an alternative to the mainstream primordialist portrayal which takes for granted the political salience of Malaysia’s racial and cultural pluralism. Whereas most class explanations of Malaysian ethnic politics have focused on the manipulation of ethnicity by the dominant class, the purpose here is rather to show how ethnicity offers an ideological channel which is employed for antithetical purposes by various contending class and class-fraction groups. While it is the class character of the state which explains the development of the ethnic ideologies in Malaysia, the resultant politics is such that the state increasingly functions, not just as the manipulator

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