The state of ethnic democracy in Malaysia

As the PH coalition rises to power for the second time, observers are asking the following questions — is transformative politics in the offing in Malaysia, can the new coalition usher in democratic reforms and will ethnic democracy wither away in the deeply polarised country?

February 06, 2023 11:19 pm | Updated February 07, 2023 12:00 am IST

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim speaks to the people during an election campaign ahead of Malaysia’s 15th general election in Kuala Lumpur on November 15, 2022.

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim speaks to the people during an election campaign ahead of Malaysia’s 15th general election in Kuala Lumpur on November 15, 2022. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Malaysia held its 15th general election (GE) in November 2022 to put an end to the volatile political situation in the region — the fallout of two ruling coalitions in quick succession. Given the tectonic political landscape of Malaysia, the election delivered, unsurprisingly, the first hung Parliament of the country as none of the existing political coalitions secured a simple majority of 112 seats out of a total 222 seats in the Dewan Rakyat (lower house of Malaysian Parliament).

The unity government led by Pakatan Harapan (PH),(The Alliance of Hope) under the premiership of Mr. Anwar Ibrahim formed the government even though it fell short of a majority with its 82 seats. It could do so as it was backed by the former long-ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) (National Front) led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and regional parties like Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) and Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) from the two states of Sabah and Sarawak of East Malaysia. The PH coalition is in power for the second time after its stint in 2018, and it advocates for a multi-cultural, inclusive, democratic, and modern Malaysia. As the PH coalition rises to power, Malaysian observers are asking the following questions — is transformative politics in the offing, can the PH coalition usher in democratic reforms and will ethnic democracy wither away in Malaysia?

Malaysia’s melting pot

Malaysia is a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multicultural country, comprising of an ethnic Malay majority, a plethora of indigenous communities, and ethnic minorities like the Chinese and the Indians. Malaysia adopted a consociational (a political system formed by the cooperation of different social groups on the basis of shared power) democracy, at the time of independence in 1957, as a viable governance model to manage its ethnic heterogeneous population effectively.

The ethnicity-based political system facilitated the formation of a multi-ethnic coalition, popularly known as the Alliance, to come to power. The Alliance was composed of the UMNO representing the Malay majority and minority ethnic political partners — the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC).

Consociational democracy was a successful political model from independence up until 1969. But after the unprecedented racial riot in 1969, the Alliance re-christened itself as the Barisan Nasional (BN) or the National Front, and embarked upon a model of politics to promote only Malay rights. This was unleashed by the UMNO which had a hegemonic political position in the ruling BN coalition which was in power for over six decades since independence until its replacement in the year 2018 by the Opposition forces led by the PH coalition. The UMNO assumed political legitimacy from its dominant position in the coalition and practised majoritarian politics. It used the Malaysian state as an apparatus to institutionalise Malay dominance, Malay language, Islam, and Malay culture in the public sphere. This hegemony was further accentuated through policy interventions.

The UMNO’s plan was to implement pro-Bumiputera (favouring Malay populations) policies in education, employment, and civil services heralding in Malay ethnocracy in Malaysia. Special provisions have been enshrined in the constitution to establish ‘Malay hegemony’ such as making Malay language the official language, Islam the religion of the Federation and reserving lands for Malay populations. With its pro-Malay measures, there has been a bulging of the Malay middle class and the nascent Malay capitalist class. Thus, the UMNO gradually crafted a dominant political narrative — Malaysia for the Malays.

The legitimisation of such an ethnic democracy was feasible in Malaysia because of the numerically lower immigrant and ethnic minorities, namely the Chinese and the Indians.

The consequences of an ethnic model

However, by pursuing pro-Malay public policies, the UMNO-led ruling BN coalition has severely damaged the social fabric of Malaysia. The ethnic minorities face relative economic deprivation because of skewed socio-economic policies favouring the Malay majority. The unveiling of a ‘cumulative marginalisation’ facilitated the escalation of an ethnic uprising in Malaysia. The Malaysian Indian community organised a massive street protest, ‘the Indian spring’ in 2007 led by the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) which highlighted the socio-economic and cultural predicaments of the Indian community under the grip of ethnic democracy. The fuelling of race and religious identity-based politics by the UMNO led to the erosion of social harmony which in turn led to the spike of ethnic conflicts between the Malays and the Indians as evidenced by incidents such as the Kampang Rawa in 1998, and the Kampang Medan in 2001.

The cultural politics of the UMNO has resulted in the rise of political Islam, sectarianism, communalism, racism, xenophobia, polarisation, cultural insularity, and puritanism. Moreover, due to blatant political patronage, crony capitalism, and nepotism, the Malaysian economy has been reeling under the ‘middle-income trap’ for several decades. The ethnic model of UMNO politics propelled a glaring economic inequality across races and the rural-urban divide. It has led to political corruption and fed the rise of kleptocratic political figures like Najib Razak — the ex-UMNO President and the sixth Prime Minister of Malaysia who was convicted for his involvement in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.

An alternative

To counter the ethnic model of the UMNO, counter political narratives have emerged — ‘Malaysia for all Malaysians’ by multi-racial political parties like the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). These parties are not homogenous and are afflicted with ideological ambiguities. For example, the DAP advocates for an egalitarian, secular Malaysia regardless of race and religion. The PKR, however, supports the special position of Malays, Islam as the state religion, preservation of Malay culture, and the promotion of Malay rights despite its progressive ideals and support for building a democratic, inclusive Malaysia for all Malaysians.

This ambiguity is represented quite clearly through Anwar Ibrahim, the tenth Prime Minister of Malaysia, the champion of inclusive and democratic Malaysia who heads the PH coalition. He has made it quite clear in his first statement that Malaysia is a multi-racial country with a special position for Malays, Islam, the Malay language, and Malay rights.

Given his liberal and democratic credentials, one can expect that the politics of ‘dominance without Malay hegemony’ may prevail under his regime instead of the politics of ‘Malay dominance with hegemony’ as in the case of the former long-ruling BN coalition led by the UMNO. As alternative politics is mired in contradictions, it is not a panacea for the ethnic model politics followed by the UMNO. Furthermore, the PH is facing a downward trend, despite the inclusion of newly enfranchised youth.

The current situation

Based on the outcome of the 15th general elections, even though the political legitimacy of UMNO-led BN is weakening, new coalitions like the Perikatan Nasional (PN) — an alliance comprising Parti Islam Se Malaysia (PAS), a conservative, Islamist party, and the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (BERSATU) — are gaining political legitimacy to carry forward the Malay agenda.

Therefore, race and religious-based identity politics are still a big challenge in Malaysia.

Due to the advent of competitive elite politics and the escalation of identity-based rhetoric, the fragmentation of political parties is looming large in the current Malaysian political landscape.

Given the fractured polity, multi-ethnic coalitions — the ruling as well as the opposition — are becoming more vulnerable as they are composed of political parties with conflicting ideologies and diverse interests.

Moreover, the fractured polity still favours the relevance of Malay hegemonic ethnic parties for political survival as well as for political stability (for both the ruling and the oppositional coalitions). For instance, the current ruling dispensation led by PH is backed by its arch-political rival the UMNO-led BN coalition.

Transformative politics or the politics of inclusion is not feasible in Malaysia under the current political circumstances. The new ruling political dispensation can therefore, only make cosmetic changes rather than deep democratic reforms.

Thus, within the fractured and divided polity of Malaysia, the paradoxical nature of alternative politics coupled with the discriminatory nature of the Malaysian constitution will ensure that Malaysia will follow an ethnic democracy, albeit a diluted version of it under the current ruling political dispensation.

Malaysia’s transition from ethnic democracy or semi-democracy to an egalitarian or mature or multi-cultural democracy appears to be elusive under the current political circumstances.

The writer is an Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, SGT University, Gurugram

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