Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Secularism Confronts Islam: Part 1

I have been trying to write on Olivier Roy’s Secularism Confronts Islam since the past few weeks but was too occupied with some other things.

In the meantime, latest political development in relation to the much talked about “cross-over” of BN MPs to Pakatan Rakyat took an interesting turn. I was on a short research trip to Sabah in the final week before Yong Teck Lee’s showdown with the BN. People whom I met, including some local politicians, talked openly about a BN component party leaving the BN.

The showdown therefore didn’t surprise me except for one thing - Yong Teck Lee stopped short of pulling SAPP out of BN. What made him changed the “script” is not exactly known by anybody else except the “main players” and the “political operators” involved in the political game.

I have been abstaining myself from writing a piece on the much talked about cross-over or pulling-out for two reasons. First, information on the supposed cross-over can hardly be verified. Pakatan people kept telling me (or us) that Anwar already had 30 to 40 BN MPs in his hands. Well even a few days after the March general election, to be exact on 11 March, I had been told by a senior PKR leader that 30 BN MPs were ready to cross-over. But BN sources told a different story. The most (I repeat, the most) Anwar can get is less than 10. The truth can be somewhere in between.
Even if the information can be verified, the span of its validity is highly uncertain. According to a reliable source, the situation kept changing by the hours rather than the days. The high level of volatility in the "negotiation" processes does not allow anyone to come up with a concrete analysis of the situation except to state the obvious - the only certainty in politics is uncertainty.

Second, as a “rookie” political scientist, I have been cracking my head for a suitable theoretical framework to ground my analysis. William Case’s intra-elite relations - where political change is more likely to happen when the elites are disunited - could be a good idea to begin with. (See Case, William. 2002. Politics in Southeast Asia: Democracy or Less? London: Routledge).

Thailand can be a good example. Self-serving elites, knowing that they could benefit more from the intra-elite conflict, continue to engage in protracted rivalries for political power. This resulted in frequent regime change, including military coup d’etat, which produced a political system that moved back and forth from stable authoritarianism to unconsolidated democracy.

Using this framework, I can safely argue, or try to show that, the possibility of cross-over will likely to result in political instability. Should the political leadership fail to manage (or discipline) the elites (through coercion or persuasion), the self-serving among them may continue to negotiate with the “government-in-waiting”, while at the same time put the government of the day to ransom. Then, this is perhaps something new about the “new” Malaysian politics. It ends the long fifty-year notion of “political stability”.

But there is yet another equally suitable framework to use. I remember reading Hari Singh’s work on the 1998 Reformasi when I did literature review for my thesis. Hari Singh asked two pertinent questions: Is the Reformasi a real process of democratization or just an attempt at oligarchic restructuring? (See Hari Singh. 2000. “Democratization or Orligarchic Restructuring? The Politics of Reform in Malaysia”. Government and Opposition 35(4): 520-46).

As a process of democratization, Reformasi was a culmination of a long process of social change marked by the emergence of a sizable middle class and the more open debate on “expressive” issues of freedoms and human rights. Anwar’s sacking and his campaign against the semi-authoritarian regime struck a chord with the existing democratic forces in the society thus culminated in public calls for political change along the more democratic lines.

But as an attempt at oligarchic restructuring, the 1998 Reformasi was just a “spill-over” effect of an internal power struggle in the UMNO “oligarchy”. Using this model, Anwar, as a former member of the oligarchy turned to the masses for popular support after failing to oust the oligarchy’s paramount leader. Should Anwar have been successful in his attempt, there would be just an oligarchic restructuring without democratization.

Both of Hari Singh’s democratization and oligarchic restructuring models could partly explain the recent development pertaining to the much talked-about cross-over. There is no denying that the calls for more democracy are real, but as cross-over plainly means shifting alliance among existing members of the “oligarchy” - from the existing not-so-paramount leader to a former heir-apparent leader - the much talked-about cross-over, if it ever materializes, could just be another attempt at oligarchic restructuring.

If I were ever to write on this subject, I will seriously consider these two frameworks. At this moment, I will just wait for the unfolding events in the realm of “low-politics” to unfold completely.

In the meantime, let me draw my attention to another subject which is closer to my heart - i.e. the confrontation between Islam and secularism, which I shall call “high politics”. As Karl Marx told us that base (economic relations) determines superstructure (ideology), I will try to show that, in Malaysian context, the “low-politics” determines the “high politics”. I will turn to this subject in my next posting.


  1. most people in malaysia like to talk about 'events' rather than 'idea'..

  2. Salam Marzuki,
    Your blog is soo academic, well it suits you though. Salam to wife yea..

  3. Excellent write up, Dr Marzuki! May I be permitted to promote your blog in mine? Jazakallahu khayr!

  4. Dear Muslim Knight,

    Sure, it's my pleasure!

  5. I thought this posting is about Islam and Secularism