Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Ethnicity and Class: Divides and Dissent in Malaysian Studies

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Ethnicity and Class: Divides and Dissent in Malaysian Studies

Article excerpt


Malaysia is a multiethnic society, with a population of 32.4 million people in 2018 according to official estimates by the Malaysian Department of Statistics. It consists of Malays, Chinese, Indians, Orang Asli, Ibans, Kadazan, Dusun, and about 30 other minority groups besides a few million migrant workers from neighboring countries (Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Vietnam, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, etc.). Malaysia has evolved from a predominantly rural agricultural society, with only 25 percent of an urban population from independence in 1957 to the late 1960s, to become an industrialized and urbanized society with 77 percent of the population living in urban areas today.

The situation 60 years ago in Malaya (Malaysia) may differ in many respects from the situation today, yet certain aspects of the past resonate in the present. The plural society structure in Malaysia, inherited from British colonialism, was described by many analysts at the time of independence as an ethnically fractured society, with serious concerns that Malaysia may not-and could not-survive as a nation given the conflicts and tension between the different ethnic groups as manifested by the ethnic riots of May 13, 1969. However, the narratives began to change in many ways following the implementation of the New Economic Policy (NEP) (1971-90), and especially after the proclamation of Vision 2020 and Bangsa Malaysia (Malaysian nation) in 1991, with aspirations to transform Malaysia into a developed nation by 2020. This was a period of rapid economic growth and rising prosperity accompanied by the rise of a multiethnic middle class, with the Malay middle class beginning to occupy cities and towns, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s as well as the early years of the twenty-first century.

Yet concerns about the past, especially with regard to ethnic divisions and differences, resonate in the present. Today, 60 years after independence, how best can we describe Malaysian society? Is it still "a fractured plural society" (Abdul Rahman 2007) as alleged by some of the early analysts? Or can we go along with the idea that Malaysia is an example of unity in diversity? Alternatively, is it a society in a state of stable tension or one characterized by divides and dissent?

Each of these concepts looks at society from a certain angle or perspective. The "fractured plural society" perspective assumes a pessimistic view of the relations between ethnic groups, especially between Malays and Chinese, as though there was no glue to hold the people together as a cohesive entity-an assumption that has been challenged by later developments and also by precolonial history, which manifested a high degree of pluralist acceptance of the other (see Conclusion).

The "unity in diversity" perspective is an optimistic and triumphalist one, quite the opposite of the fractured society approach. It sees society as comprising a colorful mosaic of peoples and cultures, with various ethnic groups living together for decades and centuries, a situation like in present-day Sarawak, Sabah, and Kelantan.

The "stable tension" (Shamsul 2010) perspective sees the problem as a paradox. While it acknowledges there is stability over the long run, it recognizes the constant tension, conflicts, and contradictions within society-although the latter do not derail societal development. This is because Malaysians are said to believe in "tongue wagging" rather than "parang- or knife-wielding"-i.e., "they talk conflict, but walk cohesion" (Shamsul 1992; 1996; 2010)-and it is believed that what Malaysian society experiences is not "unity" per se but "social cohesion" and "moments of unity" (Shamsul 2008; 2010).

The "divides and dissent" perspective, which is the theme of this special issue, is intriguing and has its own edge. We can approach this concept from various angles. For the purposes of this paper, "divides and dissent" is an analytical construct that encapsulates the dialectics of power relations between the state and society: the divides are historically evolved, as a product of the division of labor in the political economy, certain state policies, the perpetuation of a racial superiority ideology, as well as the actions of those who hold the levers of power. …

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