Saturday, May 17, 2008

Has Communalism Withered Away?

Yesterday, I presented a paper on post-electoral development at the "National Seminar on Elections 2008: Democracy At Work" organized by Electoral Studies Unit, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). In my paper "Has Communalism Withered Away?" I argue that, contrary to pronouncements made by some academics and politicians that communal politics is breaking down, communalism remain at the core of Malaysian politics. It seems that for some time in the near future, political parties and civil society organizations still need to grapple with the dynamics of communalism both in the realm of formal and non-formal politics. Below is my paper.
Has Communalism Withered Away?
Not Quite

Marzuki Mohamad

Communalism has been at the core of Malaysian politics. It permeates the country’s political process, party system, education system and social, cultural and economic policies.[1] When Malaysia gained independence in 1957, the informal communal compact reached by leaders of major ethnic groups - Malays, Chinese and Indians - contained terms that promote competing communal interests. Ethnicity and religion intertwined in the political process, often providing political legitimacy to the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) - a coalition of race-based political parties led by the dominant United Malays National Organization (UMNO) - to negotiate behind closed door the terms of political compromises between different ethnic groups. Though the BN had sometimes relied on repressive apparatuses to maintain racial harmony - as well as to remain in power- it had also been responsive to demands from the various ethnic groups in order to gain enough multiracial support to guarantee its electoral victory. With an impressive record of maintaining racial harmony in an ethnically-divided society, ensuring political stability and sustaining high level of economic growth, the BN portrayed itself as the sole viable coalition to rule the country. This paper argues that, despite greater tendency among Malaysian voters to vote across racial lines and the lackluster performance of the ruling Barisan Nasional in the March 8 general election, communalism remains at the core of Malaysian politics. Both in the realm of formal and informal politics, the issues of race and religion, in varying degrees, continue to provide the basis for interest articulation and political mobilization.

Toward a New Politics of Non-Communalism?

Articulation of competing communal interests and implementation of state policies that promoted social and economic well being of the indigenous Malays and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak (the Bumiputeras) had perpetuated the Malay/Bumiputera and non-Malay/non-Bumiputera dichotomy. Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, the implementation of Malay-favored New Economic Policy (NEP) which aimed at restructuring the society and overcoming poverty, as well as the introduction of cultural and education policies that encouraged the use of Malay language and promoted “indigenous” cultures, had caused considerable disaffection among the non-Malays.

By the 1990s, however, Malaysian politics had tilted toward greater openness in ethnic relations. Four contributors in The Politics of Multiculturalism: Pluralism and Citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia[2] argue that sustained economic development, particularly during the New Economic Policy (NEP) years,[3] had paved the way for the emergence of sizable multi-ethnic business and middle classes, which in turn eased ethnic tension and turned political discourse away from the old politics of “ethnicism” to the new politics of “inclusive multiculturalism”. This new politics is characterized by the emergence of new middle classes with “new forms of civility and participation among various ethnic groups”;[4] the creation by the arts community – the so-called cultural producer – of an inclusive trans-ethnic and trans-regional “national perspective” of pluralism;[5] a new non-communal and non-class interest-based politics associated with “mass politics of dissent, more interested in creating spaces for political expression than in winning votes”;[6] and not the least, the valorization of “developmentalism” - a political culture that valorizes economic growth and political stability, rather than ethnicity, as a new pillar of political discourse.[7]

An important marker of this new politics was the mushrooming of cross-communal and cross-sectional coalitions of civic associations pressing for political reform. During the period of Reformasi following the sacking and jailing of former Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in September 1998, overlapping coalitions of human rights NGOs, trade unions, women’s groups, student unions and Islamic organizations formed the backbone of Reformasi movement.[8] The multiracial movement seemed to symbolize a new political consciousness among the reformist sections of Malaysian society about the virtues of non-communalism, characterized by commitment to common values of humanity rather than ethno-religious and class identity in the struggle against state repressions.

Not long after the authors of the essays in The Politics of Multiculturalism put pen to paper, dissension occurred among the so-called “civic associations” over some contentious religious issues. First was the proposal by the Human Rights Committee of the Malaysian Bar Council to form an independent Interfaith Commission of Malaysia (IFC), a statutory body whose primary objective would be to “promote and protect every individual’s freedom to (sic) thought, conscience and religion with a view to (maintain) harmonious co-existence in (Malaysian) society”.[9] A conference was held in February 2005 to discuss the draft bill of the proposed commission and to “receive, address and make recommendations in respect of complaints or grievances brought by persons, bodies or organizations in connection with the individual rights to profess and practice his or her religion or faith of choice”.[10] Mainstream Islamic organizations however, protested against the proposal, which they described as anti-Islam and an effort by the non-Muslims to intervene in matters internal to Islam.[11]

Further dissension arose when women’s group Sisters in Islam (SIS) led a campaign in early 2005 to review syariah and municipal laws that allegedly impinged on individual freedoms. These included the laws that make certain acts, which the critics viewed as strictly “personal” and “victimless”, like indecent behavior, close proximity between unmarried men and women, drinking liquor and smoking, as punishable offences. The campaign, dubbed as the “Anti-Moral Policing Campaign”, sought to have such laws repealed on the ground that morality is a matter of personal choice and policing morality has no basis in Islam.[12] This move was again protested by the mainstream Islamic organizations like ABIM, JIM and the Allied Coordinating Council of Islamic NGOs (ACCIN) on the basis that those punishable offences are sinful acts, and hence the state and the Muslim society owe a collective duty to prevent them. The Islamic concept of al-amr bil ma’ruf wa al-nahy ‘an al-munkar (enjoining good and prohibiting evil) was invoked to justify their stance.[13]

Between 2005 and 2008, new contestations over the role of Islam and Islamic law in the state vis-à-vis the rights of Muslims and non-Muslims to freely practice (or not to practice) their religions cropped up. These included the row over religious conversion of an estranged husband (the Subashini case), the tussle between Islamic religious authority and the non-Muslim family of a Muslim convert over who had the right to bury the convert’s dead body (Muhammad Abdullah @ Moorthy case); the Article 11 road shows; the Federal Court’s judgment in the Lina Joy case; the use of the word Allah in a Christian publication, The Herald; and the crackdown on Ayah Pin’s sky kingdom, a cult movement that was declared deviant by the Terengganu Fatwa Committee. The secularists accused the government of de-secularizing the state through creeping Islamization. The mainstream Muslims on the other hand claimed that the secularists are trying to de-Islamize the state.[14]

In November 2007, four months before the March 2008 general election was held, tens of thousands of Indians led by the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) took to the streets in Kuala Lumpur protesting against a series of demolition of illegal Hindu temples by the local authorities. Beyond the temple issue, the HINDRAF alleged that the “Malay-led” Malaysian government has been “colonizing” and discriminating the ethnic Indians ever since the country gained independence in 1957.

The 2008 Elections: The Euphoria and the Hidden Hands

When Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi announced the dissolution of Parliament in February 2008, the divisive racial and religious issues were far from subsiding. Election goodies were given to the “disgruntled” ethnic communities - in the form of government aid to Hindu temples, Tamil schools and land title to Indian and Chinese squatters - but it was a little too late. The BN lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament and failed to gain control of five states in Peninsular Malaysia.

The BN’s failure to retain its two-thirds majority in the 2008 elections; the unseating of BN government in Kedah, Penang, Perak and Selangor; and the landslide victory of PAS in Kelantan gave moral boost to the opposition. What is more, electoral victories of PAS, PKR and DAP candidates in marginal Chinese and Malay-majority constituencies, as well as in racially mixed constituencies, seemed to indicate that there had been cross-ethnic voting in favor of the opposition. The hitherto ethnically and ideologically incompatible parties like PAS and DAP had also demonstrated greater cooperation in the elections and reinstated their once abandoned alliance in the Barisan Alternatif (BA) through the newly formed Pakatan Rakyat.

Euphoria was in the air. Anwar, now the Pakatan Rakyat de facto leader, asserted that “people were fed up with political issues along racial lines”. Johan Saravanamuttu declared that “the race-based system is braking down”.[15] Bridget Welsh on the other hand attributed BN’s lackluster performance to Abdullah’s failure to deliver on the promises for which he had a phenomenal mandate when he came into office.[16]

The real test of communal politics lies in the formation of government in the states won by the opposition. It was a clear cut case that Penang would have a Chinese Chief Minister from the DAP, while Kedah would have a Malay Menteri Besar from PAS. To give the state’s executive branch a more multiracial outlook, the new Penang state government appointed an Indian Deputy Chief Minister from DAP, alongside a Malay Deputy Chief Minister from PKR. However, the sole PAS state assemblyman in Penang, the three-term Permatang Pasir representative YB Hamdan Abdul Rahman, was not included in the state executive council line-up, indicating DAP’s reluctance to be closely associated with the Islamist party. Similarly, the PAS-led government in Kedah also did not include the sole DAP representative in the state in its Exco line-up.[17]

The events in Selangor and Perak were more dramatic. In both states, there were attempts to form UMNO-PAS coalitions at the state level purportedly to prevent the erosion of “Malay political power”. The threat of Malays losing their “political power” seemed to be quite real at least in numerical sense. In Perak for example, the number of Malay state assemblymen in the ruling coalition dropped from 36 (69%) out of 52 to barely 9 (29%) out of 31. Similarly, in Selangor, Malay representation in the ruling coalition decreased from 36 (67%) out of 54 to 18 (51%) out of 35. The Chinese gained more. In Perak, their representation increased from 13 (25%) to 17 (55%), while in Selangor, though the number of Chinese assemblymen in the ruling coalition remained 15, its percentage increased from 28% to 43%.

In Perak, given the fact that the DAP won the biggest number of seats among the opposition parties, the prospect of having a Chinese dominated state executive council or even a Chinese Menteri Besar in a “Malay state” prompted UMNO to offer the post of Menteri Besar to PAS should the latter agree to form a coalition government.[18] Similar negotiation also took place in Selangor but both failed to materialize as they were rejected by PAS. The party found the idea of forming coalition government with UMNO in the two states as politically incongruent as both parties would remain at loggerheads with each other at the federal level as well as in other states.[19] Senior party leaders also cited the party’s bitter experience in dealing with UMNO during its brief membership in the BN in the 1970s as one of the main reasons why it rejected the UMNO-PAS coalition proposal this time round.[20]

But the more plausible explanation could be that PAS realized that its cooperation with UMNO would jeopardize its newly gained multi-racial “national clout”. Cooperation with UMNO, purportedly to halt the non-Malays from gaining bigger stake in governing the two states, obviously did not auger well for the party’s effort to shore up its national clout with substantial non-Malay support.

Though the attempted UMNO-PAS coalition did not materialize, the issue of race remained one of the major concerns in the formation of state government in Selangor and Perak. Both are traditionally Malay states, although voter composition in the two states suggests that they are racially mixed.[21] Striking a balance between accepting Malay polity as the basis of the state and the new political demography tilting toward greater non-Malay participation in governing the states was not an easy task.

In Perak, it was only after much maneuvering that the DAP finally agreed to the appointment of a Malay Menteri Besar from PAS, though the Islamist party won the least number of seats (6 out of 59) in the state assembly. In return, the DAP gained the largest number of positions in the state executive council (6 out of 10) with its state leader, YB Datuk Ngeh Koo Ham, being designated as senior executive council member. In Selangor, the DAP’s attempt to get one of its representatives be appointed as a Deputy Menteri Besar was foiled by the palace’s preference that a Malay be appointed to the post. In a statement to the press, the palace reasoned that as “the Sultan was the religious head for Islam and Malay culture and the Mentri Besar has the task of assisting in these duties, which would also have to be handled by his deputy, it was only proper that a Malay be the Deputy Mentri Besar”.[22]

As ethnicity remained one of the main issues in the formation of Pakatan Rakyat-led state governments, one could not rule out its significance in the recent much talked-about cross-over of BN MPs to the Pakatan Rakyat to pave the way for the coalition to form a new federal government. As of now, there are 44 Malay MPs (53%) and 38 non-Malay MPs (47%) in Pakatan Rakyat. Should the Anwar-led coalition fail to get enough number of Malay MPs to cross over, it is very likely that the “government-in-waiting”, if it ever materializes, would have difficulties in assuring the Malay-majority that Malay polity will remain as the basis of the state.

The Realm of Non-Formal Politics: Communalism Still@Work

Apart from observing tactical maneuvering in the realm of formal politics, one must also look at the dynamics taking place in the realm of non-formal politics - the ebb and web of racial and religious contestations involving non-partisan actors in the realm of civil society - to gauge whether communalism has indeed withered away. This paper argues that communalism - marked by both religion and ethnicity - is still at work.

First, dissension over contentious religious issues is far from being resolved. Issues concerning religious conversion, the position of syariah courts vis-à-vis the civil courts, the building of non-Muslim houses of worship, the publication and distribution of non-Muslim printed religious materials - which caused much tension in inter-religious relations over the past few years - will likely to continue. Thus far, there is no indication that the major Muslim and non-Muslim groups which had been championing the interests of their respective religious communities had reached any “agreement” on those contentious issues or, at the very least, moderate their stance.

Second, there had been deep concern among Malay groups that the post-2008 electoral development would likely to erode the Malay position. The long list of the Malay Consensus Charter released after a three-day Malay Congress held in Johor Bharu between 2 and 4 May 2008 suggests that the euphoria over an emerging new non-communal politics had deepened the Malay sentiment. The charter declares that “the existence of Malaysian nation and federation is based upon the Malay sovereignty (kedaulatan Melayu), which means the political power and the formation of the state is rooted in the long historical process with continued tradition and loyalty forging the relationship between the government and the Malay subject”.[23]

Third, though well-intentioned, policies which aimed at “dismantling” the race-based system were resisted by certain sections of the Malays. The Malay protests against Lim Guan Eng’s remark on the NEP indicated that doing away with race-based system is not an easy task. The Penang state government for example had to concede to the demands from the Class F Malay contractors that they be exempted from the new open tender policy and that no new players to be allowed to partake in securing existing jobs from the state government.[24]

As government and political parties need to respond to the pressures arising from the civil society, continued racial and religious contestations which occurred in this realm would have significant impact on government policies. Though there had been signs of greater openness toward multiracialism shown by both the BN and the Pakatan Rakyat, any radical change to the race-based system should be threaded very carefully so as not to deepen the existing contestations and divisions within the realm of civil society.


The Pakatan Rakyat’s “electoral victory” hailed a new phase in Malaysian politics. There had been greater cooperation and accommodation among the hitherto ethnically and ideologically incompatible opposition political parties. Malaysian voters also demonstrated their willingness to vote across racial lines, giving added advantage to the multiracial Pakatan Rakyat. However, as the basis of interest articulation and political mobilization remained communal rather than non-communal, there remained a serious question of how the political parties can push Malaysian politics along non-communal lines without deepening the existing racial and religious contestations. For quite some time in the near future, these political parties too still need to grapple with the dynamics of communal politics.


Abdul Rahman Embong. 2001. “The Culture and Practice of Pluralism in Postcolonial Malaysia”. In Robert W. Hefner (ed). The Politics of Multiculturalism: Pluralism and Citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Funston, N.J. 1980. Malay Politics in Malaysia: A Study of the United Malays National Organisation and Party Islam. Kuala Lumpur: Heinemann Educational Books.

Gomez, E.T and Jomo, K.S. 1997. Malaysia’s Political Economy: Politics, Patronage and Profits. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hefner, Robert W. (ed). 2001. The Politics of Multiculturalism: Pluralism and Citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Kessler, Clive. 2006. Malaysia: The Long March Towards Desecularisation Asian Analysis, October. (Accessed on 17 may 2008)

Lijphart, Arend. 1977. Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Loh Kok Wah, Francis. 2001. “Where Has (Ethnic) Politics Gone? The Case of the BN Non-Malay Politicians and Political Parties. In Robert W. Hefner (ed). The Politics of Multiculturalism: Pluralism and Citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Malaysian Bar Council. 2003. Points of Agreement: Towards the Formation of an Inter-Religious Council Workshop, Kuala Lumpur, 17 May 2003.

Mandal, Sumit K. 2001. “Boundaries and Beyond: Whither the Cultural Bases of Political Community in Malaysia?” In Robert W. Hefner (ed). The Politics of Multiculturalism: Pluralism and Citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Marzuki Mohamad. 2006. Zainah Anwar’s Hate Ideology: Desecularisation or De-Islamization, or Both?. Malaysia Today. (Accessed on 29/10/06).

Ratnam, K.J. 1965. Communalism and Political Process in Malaya. Singapore: University of Malaya Press, 1965.

Shamsul A. B. 2001. “The Redefinition of Politics and the Transformation of Malaysian Pluralism”. In Robert W. Hefner (ed). The Politics of Multiculturalism: Pluralism and Citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Tan Liok Ee. 1992. “Dongjiaozong and the Challenge to Cultural Hegemony 1951 - 1987”. In Joel S. Kahn and Francis Loh Kok Wah (eds) Fragmented Vision: Culture and Politics in Contemporary Malaysia. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Von Vorys, Karl. 1975. Democracy Without Consensus: Communalism and Political Stability in Malaysia. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Weiss, Meredith. 2006. Protest and Possibilities: Civil Society and Coalitions for Political Change in Malaysia. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

* Paper presented at the “National Seminar on Elections 2008: Democracy at Work” organized by Electoral Studies Unit, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), 17th May 2008, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
** Marzuki Mohamad is Lecturer in the Department of Political Science, IIUM. He can be reached at
[1] See Ratnam (1965), von Vorys (1975), Lijphart (1977), Funston (1980), Tan (1992), Gomez and Jomo (1997).
[2] Hefner (2001).
[3] The New Economic Policy (1971-1990) is an affirmative action which aimed at restructuring the society so as to eliminate the identification of race with economic function and to eradicate poverty. The policy in essence helped the Bumiputeras (son of the soil), which refers to the Malays and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak, to achieve upward social mobility through government assistance.
[4] Abdul Rahman (2001: 63).
[5] Mandal (2001: 162).
[6] Shamsul A.B. (2001: 222).
[7] Loh Kok Wah (2001: 184).
[8] Weiss (2006).
[9] See the proposed draft bill of the Interfaith Commission of Malaysia presented and discussed at the National Conference toward the Formation of the Interfaith Commission of Malaysia, held in Bangi, Selangor on 24-25 February 2005.
[10] Malaysian Bar Council (2003: 1). Leading NGOs such Sisters in Islam, SUARAM and ALIRAN supported the proposal. Others included the Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism (MCCBCHS), a non-governmental body representing major religions in Malaysia, except Islam; interfaith organizations like the Inter-Faith Spiritual Fellowship (INSAF) and the Malaysian Interfaith Network; human rights NGOs like the National Human Rights Society (HAKAM), the Voice of Malaysian People (SUARAM) and Aliran Kesedaran Negara (ALIRAN); and leaders from the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, People’s Justice Party).
[11] See ACCIN’s press Statement on the Proposed Inter-Religious Council dated 25 June 2004. The main Islamic organizations opposing the proposal were the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM), Jamaah Islah Malaysia (JIM) and Persatuan Ulama’ Malaysia (PUM, Muslim Scholars’ Association of Malaysia),
[12] See Sisters in Islam’s press statement, "Moral Policing Violates Qur'anic Spirit and Fundamental Rights". (Accessed on 1 May 2005).
[13] See ABIM’s press statement Pencegahan Maksiat dan Salah Laku Moral Harus Dipertahankan (Prevention of Vices and Immoral Conduct Should Be Defended) dated 31 Mac 2005 at (Accessed on 15 June 2005)
[14] Kessler (2006); Marzuki (2006).
[15] Associated Press, 10 March 2008.
[16] Associated Press, 10 March 2008.
[17] A senior PAS leader indicated that the party did propose to appoint the sole DAP representative in Kedah as a state Exco hoping that the DAP will reciprocate the move in Penang. The matter did not materialize though. The Penang PAS assemblyman however was tipped to take up a senior position in one of the state’s Islamic agencies.
[18] Informal discussion with a senior Perak UMNO leader, 11 March 2008, Ipoh.
[19] Informal discussion with YB Dato’ Husam Musa, PAS Vice-President, 11 March 2008, Kuala Lumpur.
[20] Informal discussion with YB Tuan Guru Datuk Seri Hj. Abdul Hadi Awang and senior PAS leaders, 31 March 2008, Kuala Lumpur.
[21] In the 2008 elections, Selangor had 50% registered Malay voters, 35% Chinese voters, 14% Indian voters and 1% other voters. In Perak, there were 46% Malay voters, 40% Chinese voters, 12% Indian voters and 2% other voters.
[22] The Star ,14 March 2008.
[23] See the Malay Consensus Charter dated 4 May 2008.
[24] Informal discussion with YB Liew Chin Tong, Member of Parliament for Bukit Bendera, Penang, 22 March 2008.

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