Dr Farish A. Noor

Maintaining our detached gaze at what is happening in Malaysia today, let us hypothetically imagine a scenario in a fictional country that has the following characteristics and features: It is a smallish country with a modest population of less than thirty million citizens; a plural ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious mix that was further entrenched through a short history of colonial rule where these communal differences were enhanced rather than diminished; an economy that was once based on export of natural commodities but which now is trying to keep up in the industrialisation race and to maintain some degree of competitive advantage in the global market.

Any country that fits such a profile would rank as an aspiring developing nation in the world today, and would have to do its utmost to succeed in the global struggle for survival. It therefore falls upon the shoulders of those governing such a nation to try to find the most ideal model of compromise and co-operation among the communities to ensure that the best aspects of that society will dominate, rather than the baser ones.

Such a plural society can embark on a number of different trajectories, bringing it to very different destinations. It may opt for the simple path of communitarian politics and allow its political culture to be dominated by communitarian parties based on race or religion, which may suffice for a while but which brings with it attendant tensions and contradictions that eventually will spill out into the open. The failed experiment with communitarian politics we have seen all over Africa and South Asia, and entire societies have been eventually ripped apart thanks to the politicisation of race, ethnicity, culture, language and religion.

Or that same society may chose a politics of inclusive nation-building instead, if and when its leaders opt to down-play sectarian particular differences of ethnicity and religion, and instead focus on a common universal citizenship as the basis of its postcolonial politics. This may lead to a situation where every community has to experience some loss of its autonomy and historical claims, but as long as these losses are evenly shared and equally carried, the equal loss of identity is also a thing that equalises everyone.

The situation we see in Malaysia today seems to be closer to the former case, unfortunately; and one can attempt a straightforward material-economic analysis of the situation coupled with some historical observations as well as demographic ones.

Malaysia is a country that seems to be in denial of the fact that structural and economic reform is necessary. Next door in neighbouring Singapore and Indonesia there is the acute awareness of the immense economic challenges that lie ahead for ASEAN as a whole, with the rise of China that is now the primary trading partner of countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. (And no longer the USA.) Indonesia is aware that any social turmoil now or in the years to come will lead to a catastrophic impact on its international standing and image, precisely when it needs to recover much needed foreign capital and to get its economy going again. And both Singapore and Indonesia are aware of the fact that the world doesnt owe them a living and that the race of the global economy will not slow down an iota for either country to catch up. Simply put: If Singapore and Indonesia do not recover from the recent financial crisis by the end of this year, their respective national projects will be scuttled for decades and they will simply fall down the rung of global development.

It is for this reason that many developing countries today are on the look-out for inclusive modes of governance to ensure that their societies can and will develop in toto, in tandem with all the respective components of that society. There is no sentimentality or even ethics in this consideration, but merely the coldest technocratic awareness that fragmented societies stand the biggest risk of falling apart in times of rapid socio-economic change.

The rise and expansion of a communitarian public domain in Malaysia that is sectarian and exclusive is therefore something that ought to concern all Malaysian technocrats and social planners, for it would indicate that significant sections of the Malaysian population no longer think in terms of a national goal and national interest, but rather communal interests that are short-sighted, narrow, parochial and essentialist. These communitarian interests foreground primordial sentiments based on a narrow sense of group-feeling and are grounded on selective and sometimes erroneous interpretations of history, leading to historically biased communitarian demands being articulated in the public domain.

For technocrats who have to consider the survivability of the nation-state in the long run, such emotion-driven politics is not only irrational and subjective, but dangerously so for they threaten to undermine the objective basis of any nation-building project. Politicians who pander to these demands, concede to them on the basis of short-term political interests, or worse of all help to fan these emotional sentiments are therefore directly implicated in centrifugal tendencies that may eventually weaken if not sever the fragile bonds of nation-building and nationhood.

Thus in Malaysia what we are witnessing today – with the rise of ethnic and religious based NGOs and social movements calling for more exclusive communitarian politics – are symptoms of a society that is undergoing the traumatic process of change without a social safety net. Calls for ethnic and religious solidarity are not unique to Malaysia, for they have appeared even in the developed parts of the world when structural-economic changes have led to economic slowdown and massive unemployment, etc. (It is not a coincidence that the rise of neo-Fascism in Europe today is happening in parts of Europe where unemployment has passed twenty per cent.)

But the role and responsibility of governments is not to cater to these sectarian demands but rather to moderate them by reminding them of the national interest and long-term national goals instead. This however can be done only when political elites stop playing the game of communitarian politics themselves and stop toying with issues like ethnicity, language or religion to serve their short-term electoral goals. Should such measures not be taken, and should the trend towards sectarian communitarian politics continue in any country, the net result is clear for all to see. In the postcolonial era scores of young nation-states have completely fallen apart thanks to the rise of ethno-nationalist communitarian or religiously exclusive politics.

The fate of Malaysia in the short to medium term may or may not differ from these other failed states if the politicians, political parties and NGOs of the country are not careful; for there are no historical or essential guarantees to the nation-building project here or anywhere else. And in the final analysis, those who are currently involved in the heightening of tensions in the country ought to realise the cost of their actions on the nation’s image and long-term prospects; and the consequences should the nation-building project fail in Malaysia. Malaysia – like every other country in the globalised world today – is not going to be given a second chance; and the world does not owe Malaysia a living, and nor will the march of development slow down for Malaysians to catch up. Malaysians will therefore have to unite or perish, together.

Children, actors and drama queens can be emotional, but not technocrats and politicians; so leave emotions outside politics and govern coldly and rationally.