Behind the rifts in modern Malaysia - A rise in nativism, eroding civic values, and a failing democracy are exacerbating already dangerous divisions
Modern Malaysia’s obsession with uniformity is tearing the nation apart. This trend, which sees difference as inherently dangerous, is being driven by ‘nativism’ – being against ethnic and religious minorities and having an instinctual allegiance towards one’s community intensified by agent provocateurs.
Within the span of a year, a state mufti has condemned the multi-racial but Chinese-dominant opposition party, DAP, as “kafir harbi” – non-Muslims who can be slain. Malay protesters, arriving in mobs, became entangled in brawls and shouting matches with Chinese vendors at Low Yat Plaza. Even the silver screen took on a dark tone when the Malaysia Film Festival segregated its nominations into “Best Films” and “Best non-Malay language films” — the former assumed to be in the Malay language.
Late last year, tens of thousands hit the streets to demonstrate support for Prime Minister Najib Razak during an event now known as the red shirt rally. The rally sought to “make it clear to Malaysian citizens, don’t challenge the Malays, don’t touch the Malays.” Despite the antagonistic rhetoric about the inferiority of other races, Prime Minister Najib Razak endorsed the rally, offering his “congratulations to everyone who attended.”
Pockets of Malaysian society, once humble, tolerant and moderate, are now rallying behind arrogance, antagonism and illiberalism.
Such assertions of supremacy appear perplexing. Contemporary psychologist Jonathan Haidt determines one key pillar of morality to be “in-group loyalty”. At one end of the spectrum lie people whose instinct is to care universally, while those at the other protect members of their community. In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) classical sociologist Emile Durkheim explains that these moderate feelings of tribalism are then elevated when one is in a collective.
Amid last year’s red shirt rally in Malaysia, one voice stood out. Sungai Besar UMNO division chief Jamal Yunos grabbed the limelight and chanted “Cina babi!” (“Chinese are pigs!”), triggering pitchfork-level outrage in others. But by Durkheim’s line of thought, Jamal’s behaviour was nothing egregious.
Narrating a man leading a crowd of ardent supporters, Durkheim writes:
His language becomes high-flown in a way that would be ridiculous in ordinary circumstances; his gestures take on an overbearing quality; his very thought becomes impatient of limits and slips easily into every kind of extreme. This is because he feels filled to overflowing, as though with a phenomenal oversupply of forces that spill over and tend to spread around him. … This extraordinary surplus of forces is quite real and comes to him from the very group he is addressing. … It is then no longer a mere individual who speaks but a group incarnated and personified.
Standing alone, any one person’s bold cries for racial hegemony would appear outrageous. But on that fateful day, in moral consensus with people surrounding him, social approbation begets reckless confidence in his judgment and fearlessness in his actions.
The dangerous rise of nativism in Malaysia is also explained by the country’s failing democratic culture.
Pillars of democracy can only be upheld when society embraces democratic virtues. Institutes of democracies are meaningless — precarious at best — if they do not go hand-in-hand with democratic values in the hearts and minds of citizens.
Outwardly, Malaysia is a democracy. Elections are held regularly, the elected are accountable to the electorate, to a certain extent as the 1MDB scandal shows, and the state apparatus to the elected members of parliament.
But, Malaysians lack the appreciation for democratic values that makes the term “parliamentary democracy” anything more than a soundbite.
And then there are the problems with Malaysia’s civic education – which helps feed this trend of nativism and democratic deficit. Malaysia’s current syllabus for Civic and Citizenship Education boils down to nothing more than a laundry list of moral dos and don’ts.
Malaysia’s civic education needs an overhaul — to be one that mandates critical moral reflection, as opposed to rote memorisation of civic duties — to overcome the political apathy that has enveloped society.
Amy Gutmann, author of Democratic Education (1987), offers that such an education should inculcate truthfulness to one’s self, mutual respect for and the ability to deliberate over differences with others, commitment to society — thus teaching the importance ranging from individual freedoms to collective social consciousness.
When formal institutions of democracy are not accompanied by a corresponding level of public commitment towards core democratic values, institutions of democracy are easily collapsible — and that won’t seem to matter.
Before we unquestioningly accept the many platitudes that are imposed on us, whether by pillars of power or factions in society, perhaps it would do us good to develop our own independent thoughts.
Ultimately, these are moral choices that we need to identify, but even more importantly, ones that we are able to legitimately justify predicated upon personal autonomy and societal interests.
Lim Li Ann is an economics and public policy graduate from Singapore Management University. She is a co-author of the chapter on arbitrary detention in the forthcoming book, The History of Human Rights Society in Singapore, 1965-2015.