ETHNIC RELATIONS IN PENINSULAR MALAYSIA: THE CULTURAL AND ECONOMIC DIMENSIONS Abstract This paper looks at the changing ethnic relations in Peninsular Malaysia in terms of the interactions between the state’s policies to advance Malay cultural dominance and reduce ethnic economic inequality and the aspirations and actions of the Chinese community.
The state of ethnic relations partly will depend on whether the majority of the ethnic members, in particular the ethnic elites, are pursuing separatist or amalgamative strategies and goals, and on whether the rival ethnic groups stand in positions of marked inequality or near equality to each other. In this sense, since the 1969 ethnic riots, ethnic relations have eluded out right conflicts in part because the rival ethnic communities have pursued mainly amalgamative strategies and goals, and in part because the economic inequality gap has narrowed between the Malays and non-Malays.
However, the expanding place of Islam in the Malay personal, and hence collective, identity and the relative success in making social classes more multiethnic have added additional complexities to the future of ethnic relations. Introduction Ethnicity remains the most potent force in Malaysia even if of late its influence has been somewhat adulterated by other social stratification forces, principally class and gender.
The potency of ethnicity lies in its ability to combine both affective and instrumental appeals. As members of distinct and self-conscious cultural communities, Malays, Chinese and Indians naturally were inclined to identify with and treasure their respective languages, cultures and religions, and thus actively strived to preserve and propagate them. 1 Since they share a common pool of generalized symbols and values, the ethnic members would primarily socialize and associate with their own.
Ethnicity thus continues to constitute an integral constituent of the individual Malaysia psyche and ethnic membership critically demarcates his/her social life and taste. It follows that the effectiveness of affective appeals originates from the evident passionate attachments to a particular ethnicity that continue to sway individual identification and pattern of social life. Passionate attachments are readily excited for the purposes of galvanizing ethnic individuals to preserve, protect and promote their culture, language, and religion.
Historically, in Malaysia, the affective appeals also became intimately intertwined with the instrumental pursuit of political and economic goals that aimed to manipulate the system and distribution of rewards in preference of the particular ethnic members. Consequently, because ethnicity combines “an interest with an affective tie”, ethnic groups were more effective and successful than social classes in mobilizing their members in pursuit of collective ends in Malaysia.
In post-independent Malaysia, ethnic relations became entangled and influenced by the rival ethnic communities’ struggle over the cultural constituents of national identity, the share of political power, and the distribution of economic wealth. This paper is divided into two parts. The first part examines the development in the cultural relations and the second part on the economic relations. The Cultural Dimension In the Western European experience, the process of nation building was preceded by or coincided with the cultural process of collective identity formation that was grounded in ethnicity.
If and when ethnicity formed the basis of nationality, the construction of a national culture/identity almost always would be based on the dominant ethnic group’s culture with the concurrent marginalization, and usually annihilation, of the minority ethnic groups’ cultures (Smith 1986). In most of the Western European nations, assimilation of the minority ethnic groups into the dominant ethnic group culture became the normative historical experience. The tacit conflation of nation and ethnicity largely arose from the emergence of European nations with relatively homogeneous national cultures.
Indeed, the tacit conflation entrenched and perpetuated the notion of a nationalism that imagines the nation in terms of a people sharing a common history, culture, language and territory. In the colonial world, the conflated conception of nationalism powerfully captured the imaginations of most of the national liberation movements. Inspired by 2 the image of a homogenous cultural nation led to efforts by the dominant ethnic groups in the postcolonial world to fashion national cultures out of their own.
A result of this was the proliferation of assimilationist policies in many of the postcolonial nationstates. But, given the multiethnic character of nearly all the postcolonial nation-states, the imposition of assimilationist policies regularly resulted in accentuating the relations between the dominant and minority ethnic groups. Although Malaysia is an exception to the rule in terms of not pursuing an outright assimilationist policy, the Malays, nevertheless, persisted on the construction of a national culture founded on their culture.
The unequal relation between the Malay and non-Malay cultures was formally recognized and written into the 1957 Constitution2. This was a radical departure from the colonial period where no one ethnic group’s culture was given privileged status and there was no conception of a common national culture. The colonial state moreover practiced an essentially nonintervention policy in the cultural development of the colony and each ethnic group had equal access to and could freely practice their culture in the colonial public space.
The postcolonial state played, in contrast, an increasingly interventionist role in the cultural development of the society and actively promoted the public presence of Malay culture. In post-independent Malaysia, the site of cultural contentions was centered over the status and place of the different ethnic groups’ cultures in the public space. To construct a national culture founded on Malay culture necessary would mean the construction of a public space where Malay culture is omnipresence with the nonMalay cultures relegated to the periphery.
However, to advance the Malay cultural symbols and Islam in the public space, the state would have to roll back the historically expansive presence of non-Malay cultural symbols in the public space in general and in the urban space in particular. Constitutionally, since the assimilationist notion was abandoned in Malaysia, the predicament was how to advance Malay cultural dominance without alienating the non-Malay communities and violating their rights to practice and to propagate their cultures as guaranteed in the constitution.
In short, the ambivalence around the inclusion and exclusion of the non-Malays’ cultures constitutes the key predicament in the construction of the modern Malaysian nation. 3 In the 1960s, the cultural terrain was a fiercely contested arena. This was because, during this period, the majority of Malays and non-Malays held diametrically opposing stances on the cultural, religion and language issues.
On the one side, the popular Malay opinion strongly backed the dominant and privileged position of Malay culture in the new nation and expected the state to uphold and promote Malay culture and the official status of Malay language. Consequently, the perceived slow progress made by the state in advancing Malay culture and language led to increasing numbers of Malays, especially the Malay cultural nationalists,3 to become disenchanted with the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) leaders.
On the other side, the majority of Chinese vigorously and persitently advocated the equality of status for every culture in the society;4 Mandarin as one of the official languages, equal treatment of Chinese culture and religion, and equal recognition of and rights to education in their mother tongue. The Chinese demand for complete equality was powerfully captured in the notion of a “Malaysian Malaysia”. The heated cultural contentions considerably envenomed the ethnic relations in the 1960s.
In the immediate aftermath of the 1969 ethnic riots, the Malay-dominated state proceeded, aggressively, to reconstitute the public cultural landscape. The National Culture Policy was implemented in 1971 to amplify the symbolic presence of Malay culture and Islam in the public space. Also in 1971, the National Education Policy was executed to incrementally make Malay language as the medium of instruction at all educational levels. Indeed, after 1969, the preeminence of Malay culture in the society became a non-negotiable proposition, and questioning it could result in prosecution under the Sedition Act.
Conversely, the pro-Malay cultural policies put the non-Malay communities on the defensive and prodded them to safeguard their cultural presence in and access to the public space. In particular, when the state imposed increasing regulations and restrictions on the their rights to stage public cultural performances or to acquire land to build Chinese schools and places of worship and burial, it induced the Chinese to mobilize to defend and struggle for their cultural space and rights.
The impact of the state cultural policies on the ethnic relations over the years depends on several factors. One factor is connected to what was the prevailing conception of Malay culture and the elements of the non-Malay ethnic cultures that 4 could go into the national culture. Another factor has to do with the specific cultural policies formulated and the manner the Malay-dominated state had pursued them. They varying responses of the Malay and Chinese groupings to the state cultural policies constitute another important factor.
In the 1970s, pressures from the Malay cultural nationalists pushed the state to strive aggressively to enlarge the presence and function of Malay cultural symbols in the official and public spaces. Since the 1980s, however, pressures from the resurgence of Islam among the Malays led the state to introduce more measures to enhance the “Islamicization” of the society. Simply put, the state allocated funds and established institutions to research on and propagate Malay arts and cultures, “altering them where necessary to fit current ideological and religious sensibilities” .
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