MySay: Who says it’s not possible for Malaysia to move beyond identity politics?

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on October 28, 2019 - November 03, 2019.
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For Malaysian politics to transcend the primacy of identity and move on to policymaking that is truly constructive and progressive, in the building of a country that is socially harmonious, morally proud and economically influential, there are at least five aspects that require deep consideration.

The first are the political and historical contingencies behind the country’s fixation with identity. Identity is in itself a complex concept. It stretches in time from past to present to future, and leaves much for us to pick and choose from. It also spans social space, from the individual’s innermost sense of self or longing for self, to the collective identities that are ascribed to the individual.

What is identity politics then? We like to think of political parties as an expression of certain collective interests. In that understanding, politics goes from the bottom to form the top. In many ways, the forming of Umno in 1946 resulted from this manner — from a groundswell responding to a threat mounted by the returning British colonialists through the creation of the Malayan Union, and which was proclaimed as common and dangerous to all Malay communities on the peninsula. In that pressured context, personal identity and collective identity melded together and proved effective.

However, from that time onwards, the Malay collective and individual identity being under threat effectively became the staple for Malay politics. The constituency that created a political apparatus from below as its expression would over time become a captive of the political elite, and Malay politics became largely about sustaining a sense of common threat, and through that, of maintaining a notion of unchanging culture (effectively done through religion) and defending the notion of a common identity (which is a harder thing to do, involving the seeking of different markers, ranging from language to culture to royalty, and recently, to the ever vaguer notion of collective dignity).

What May 9 last year signifies, in this context, is a partial escape from this 70-year-old narrative of collective fear. The opposition today, as we see, expresses the two sides of constituency capture that I mention above. We have a religious party on the one hand, and on the other, a Malay-first party that is having a hard time deciding what that phrase will mean in the coming decades.

In the ruling coalition, we have three Malay-based parties — one that accepts the multicultural nature of the country; one that considers Islam an open and tolerant way of life; and a third that, though also having a Malay-first agenda, is not too concerned with conservative understandings of Malayness, but is instead economic-nationalist in nature, and thus more willing to work across ethnic boundaries.

Such is the present state of politics in Malaysia — the country is struggling to move away from processes of nation-building, state-building and national-economy-building defined by the contingencies involved in the game of capturing ethnic constituencies.

This struggle has been unavoidably hampered by the effects of the muzzling of academia and journalism since the 1970s, which left public discourses as the monopoly of politicians.

The mass media may appear relatively free today, but the standard of journalism still leaves a lot to be desired. Academia has been muffled and compromised for so long, we do not expect revolutionary changes to come from that direction as yet.

This leaves public intellectuals, non-governmental organisations and think tanks to push the envelope of change, away from the primacy of ethnic identity to the primacy of society building. Shared prosperity is a good notion for initiating a new era of public discourses in Malaysia.

Improving journalism and freeing academia is thus the second of the five aspects to consider.

The third has to do with the isolationist and introverted nature of post-World War Two nation-building. Throughout the world, post-colonial understandings for creating a new nation involved inward-looking concerns. Securing boundaries, securing constituencies, securing power — these were the priorities of the nation-builders.

This was understandable given that nationalism in colonised regions was always seen as a defensive measure and a wish to external powers. The fact that all this happened within the larger context of the global Cold War encouraged defensiveness in domestic and foreign affairs, and maintained conservatism in thinking, especially about cultural and ethnic matters. It also effectively banned class analyses and diminished class consciousness.

A new era in Malaysian nation-building will thus require a regionalising, if not a globalising of the country’s national consciousness.

In this light, highlighting soft power elements in Malaysia’s development and culture does not only make good branding sense, it will also reduce the appeal of identity politics.

The ambition to locate Malaysia as a middle power in world politics relies strongly on the soft power that the country can advertise to the region and beyond.

The fourth aspect to consider is the diversity of Malaysia — in cultural matters no doubt, but also in historical experiences and thus in the understanding of key concepts such as society, economics and even politics. In their wisdom, the founding fathers — and whether we like to think so nor not, these included the British colonialists who, post-Malayan Union, were deeply concerned about the Cold War and economic details of their retreat from the region and realised that a federation was the form the disparate parts that were to become Malaysia had to take.

Federalism ideally provides space for diverse persons and communities to interact where possible and to keep a distance from each other when necessary. Identity politics, with its wish for uniformity and unity, has tended thus to work against this side of Malaysian politics.

Analogically, a big family needs a big house within which necessarily testy dynamics have chances of evolving and integrating over time. A country as diverse as Malaysia needs the sociopolitical space federalism offers. This structure that Malaysia was born with should thus be acknowledged and appreciated as a way to diminish narrow-minded and counterproductive approaches to nation-building.

The final aspect to consider is that of hope, economic or otherwise, not only for the present generation but, most importantly, for the next generation. In that sense, alongside the notion of Shared Prosperity, the lowering of the voting age by the government is a promising move in empowering the young and the energetic, but this must be followed by serious initiatives to educate the next generation in ways they are not used to and on matters alien to many of them. Again, that is where society at large, and NGOs in particular, have an important role to play.

In conclusion, I would say that you cannot leave identity politics behind without putting into place other channels that better express the hopes of the populace, and that can capture their individual imagination so that they are not as easily drawn into fruitless quarrels with fellow citizens as had been the case. Identity is important to each one of us, no doubt, but being ethnically captured constituencies diminishes us and leaves the country failing to live up to its evidently huge potential.

Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of Penang Institute. This article builds on a speech given on the panel ‘Redefining Malaysian Politics: Moving Away from Identity to Policies’ at the 4th IDEAS Liberalism Conference held on Oct 19 in Renaissance Kuala Lumpur Hotel. His forthcoming book is As Empires Fall: The Life and Times of Lee Hau-Shik, the First Finance Minister of Malaya (ISEAS 2010).

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