An anthology with exciting internal dynamics


Edited by Lim Teck Ghee, Alberto Gomes and Azly Rahman
Published by Strategic Information and Research Development Centre and MiDAS @ UCSI University

The average Malaysian non-fiction section in any bookstore looks like a country club photo album that portrays the post-colonial elite, endorsing the viewpoint of the status quo they help create. There are few books on the market that study the evolution of Malaysia's multiethnic society, let alone address the country's tumultuous past, its uneasy scandal-laden present and its often uncertain and constantly shifting future. Therefore, a book on multiethnic Malaysia, with its no-holds-barred approach to ethnic issues is a much welcome addition.

Multiethnic Malaysia: Past, Present and Future is a compilation of 25 papers written by 20 of the country's most well-known academics, political experts, activists and columnists. These include Khoo Kay Kim, currently on the board of the National Human Rights Commission, P. Ramasamy, the current Deputy Chief Minister of Penang, Syed Husin Ali, the deputy president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat and Zainah Anwar, a founding member of Sisters in Islam. They cover various aspects of Malaysia's ethnic relations, including current social trends, conflicts with new and old ideologies, post-colonial ethnic schisms that persist to this day and the interconnecting issues of culture, language, religion, education and race politics as well as the history of current social phenomena.

A major theme that runs through the book is the effect of hegemonic government, such as political and historical narratives that are used to justify such policies as the New Economic Policy (NEP) and the current rise in ethnic-religious conservatism.

The thesis of the book is essentially that if we are to properly deal with major divisive issues, we must critically evaluate our society's tumultuous evolution. In the past, we allowed colonial powers to define how we should interpret races and other issues. We should not let the current political elite to do the same.

What makes this book more than just a critique on government policy and mere anti-government rhetoric is that it is honest enough not to toe the line of any one agenda. From the onset it is stated clearly that these 25 papers will not, as the editors put it, "find common ground on these vital events and processes". It is, however, these differing views that offer detailed insights into the evolution of Malaysian ethnic relations. The book succeeds in providing an "open space to explore, analyse and assemble the complex local knowledge on this challenging subject", and constitutes a bold and detailed corpus of knowledge about inter-ethnic issues.

There are two themes in the book that need to be pointed out in particular. At times it is not so much the articles that contradict one another so much as the writers contradicting themselves. Lee Hock Guan's chapter on "Language, Education and Ethnic Relations" points out, as many of the other articles do, that the ruling party's preoccupation with the notion of Ketuanan Melayu or "Malay Supremacy" gives rise to an unease amongst non-Malays, as he demonstrates with the issue of Chinese-medium school preservation, and concludes that "perhaps the single most important root cause that needs to be dealt with immediately is the extensive practice of ethnic discrimination in the public education sector". But by the same token, Lee also says that Ketuanan Melayu and the political power of the ruling government are sustained by the vestigial elements of post-colonial ethnic segregation (pg. 202). It is difficult to understand how a postcolonial ethnic schism and the forced assimilation implied by the threat to Chinese-medium schools can both sustain the ruling government since ironically, the desire to maintain Chinese-medium schools can be said to be a continuation of that same post-colonial ethnic schism.

There is also the habit of placing the bulk of the blame for the nation's ethnic divisions on the colonial powers. Sheila Nair addresses this directly by stating that current political players internalised cultural stereotypes and geographic and occupational divisions crystallised by the British (pg. 10). But when an avenue for races to dissociate themselves from these stereotypes is provided by the pre-independence Centre of People's Power-All-Malaya Council of Joint Action (Putera-AMCJA) political party, by amongst other things using the term "Malay" as a mark of citizenry rather than limiting it to race, as per the historical usage of the term, it fails not just from opposition by the British but more strikingly from inter-ethnic animosities between races. As Ariffin Omar notes, "Malays were unwilling to trust the non- Malays and the non-Malays were not confident that the Malays would act fairly towards them". Both saw the British as impartial in spite of ample evidence to the contrary (pg. 8).

At times, far too much blame is placed on British colonial bigotry, rather than on the inability of the various ethnic groups to truly make a concerted effort to work together. Indeed, it would seem that with the post-colonial ethnic schisms in place, at least the ruling Malay elite have managed to leverage the ethnic schisms to their advantage by striving for Malay political hegemony, as P. Ramasamy points out when examining the policies of United Malays National Organisation (Umno) before and after the creation of the NEP (pg. 95).

What is more damning is the fact that Malaysians exhibit extraordinary prejudice not only towards each other, but to outsiders as well. Wazir Jahan Karim's piece on migrant discrimination, "The Affairs of the Bogeyman: Migration and Class across Borders", highlights this disturbing fact by emphasising class discrimination exercised against any impoverished ethnic group (pg. 408, 410, 420). Diana Wong in her piece about "Malaysia's New Migrants: Problems of Incorporation and Management" emphasises Wazir Jahan's point further by pointing out the hostility of the local press towards migrant workers by associating them with criminality and infectious diseases, while the authorities single out migrant communities for drug raids (pg. 398).

Her piece also highlights the physical abuse, cheating on migrant worker wages and even corruption of law enforcement (pg. 399). It is interesting to note that in the same piece, authorities make no distinction between illegal immigrant workers and political refugees (pg. 399). These facts further provide proof of the existence of an endemic seam of xenophobia that runs through Malaysian consciousness, implying that ethnic schisms and xeno-phobic attitudes towards the "other" is not a mere colonial vestige.

Multiethnic Malaysia is an interesting, provocative and intellectually necessary book. The articles do not necessarily find common ground regarding causes and effects where ethnic relations are concerned. As a whole however, the articles do conduct an internal dialogue with each other. This inter-connecting thematic strength is what makes the book a stimulating read, with disagreements between the pieces giving rise to a lively asynchronous debate.

Chan Huan Chiang is a senior research fellow at the Socio- Economic and Environmental Research Institute (SERI)

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