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Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Malay psyches: race & social class in politics

English: A sarawakian-malay kampung house.

 Malay social class comes into play


While race remains an issue in the Malaysian political discourse, the matter of social class is now becoming a key determining factor.

FOR the last 50 years, Malaysian politics has been defined by race. From the Malayan Union controversy of 1946 to the riots of 1969, Malay fears over non-Malay economic might have been at the heart of the Alliance’s (and later Barisan Nasional’s) electoral calculations.

But times have changed and while race continues to simmer, a new long-forgotten issue – social class – is fast becoming a key determining factor.

Moreover, the public is increasingly sceptical of those who promote Malay rights. They view such figures in much the same way as small-town Midwesterners look on the antics of K-Street lobbyists in Washington; and just as with Americans, there is mounting outrage with every successive incidence of establishment corruption and abuse of power.

In this respect, Malaysia is merely following global trends as demonstrators across the world – from New York and Madrid to Cairo and Damascus – take to the streets to express their frustration and alienation with prevailing economic policies.

Still, it’s critical that we understand how and why this has happened because the forces at work are not one-off or temporary.

Instead, they are irreversible and overwhelming.

Technology is the key catalyst. By observing how the media has been buffeted by these changes, we can begin to learn in turn how “race” has slipped from the forefront of Malaysian political discourse.

So, let’s return to the years immediately after the 1969 riots. At that stage, news distribution was a highly-centralised business. The industry was top-down, capital-intensive and easily subject to political controls.

Printing presses, TV and radio stations were located in specific places and the channels linking them to audiences were similarly defined and determined.

This, along with a vast expansion of the government apparatus (from operational ministries to agencies and state-owned enterprises) allowed ideologues to set in motion a series of policies intended to unify and homogenise the Malay community.

In the process, a once-diverse and disparate Malay/Muslim world — don’t forget the Malays were a predominantly maritime and littoral people – was forcibly melded into one, with the aristocratic “bangsawan” ethos of Umno at its core.

Muslims of Indian, Javanese, Acehnese and Hadramauti origin were encouraged to do away with their specific cultural practices as Malay-ness, as defined by Kuala Lumpur-based ideologues, became paramount.

Geographical differences were likewise ironed out in order to present a united voice as Kedahans, Johoreans and Terengganu-ites became Malay first. In this push, however, the biggest losers were Malays from the two most developed states – Perak and Selangor – where a sense of local identity was totally eradicated.

The media was complicit in this agenda, strengthening the centre as a sense of local sentiment was denigrated as backward.

Of course, in East Malaysia, the process was all the more intense as pressure was brought to bear on Bajau, Orang Sungai and Melanau communities to become explicitly Malay – thus denying their distinctive local identities.

Similarly, the left-of-centre, socialist traditions exemplified by the late Burhanuddin Helmy were also swept aside and vilified. However (and ironically) Umno was never able to dislodge Kelantanese parochialism, permitting PAS a foothold that it exploited for its own Islamist ends.

Umno political strategists were only to realise much later that the disappearance of the “left” was to open up the ideological terrain for the Islamists – many of whom modelled themselves on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Indeed, the Islamists’ exclusion from the centres of power meant that they were able to focus on issues of social justice, benefiting in turn from the growing disgust with mainstream politics.

However, the IT explosion post-2000 has broken the establishment’s control over both the news and the media in general.

Indeed, the proliferation of voices unleashed by technology has been both deeply distressing and disorientating for those who believe in a monolithic Malay identity centred on the royal houses and the government-sanctioned Islamic beliefs and practices.

Many in the old elite (some of whom are actually quite young) remain Canute-like in their rejection of the new realities.

So where are we heading? First off, Malays as Muslims are still united by their faith. Nonetheless, many differences will continue to emerge as people explore intellectual and spiritual frontiers on their own.

Secondly, the keenest divide will be the differences between the haves and have-nots (determined, of course, by proximity to political power) within the Malay community as urban English-language speaking Malays continue to forge ahead, leaving their monolingual brothers and sisters in the lurch.

Furthermore, the increasing demographic dominance of the Malays – 50.1% of our total population of 27.5 million (more if we include the non-Malay bumiputra communities’ 11.8%) – means that the old anxieties of being overwhelmed by others no longer seem as dire.

This, therefore, is where the Malay community stands in 2012.

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