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  • Multiculturalism in Malaysia:Individual Harmony, Group Tension

    Roxane Harvey Gudeman

    Lim Cheng Po came to tea. He took it in the English manner, enjoyed thetomato sandwiches and the fruitcake, said, in his Balliol voice: A pity onecant get crumpets here. He was a solicitor from Penang. . . . He was plumpand not unhandsome, his Chinese blood hardly apparent . . . He talked nowabout the troubles in Penang that had just endedterrorism and a curfew onthat one-time peaceful island. . . .

    Who starts it all? asked Crabbe.My dear chap, thats rather a nave question, isnt it? It just starts. Some

    blame the Malays, others the Chinese. Perhaps a Malay shakes his fist at aChettiar money-lender and, for some obscure reason, that sets off a brawl in aChinese cabaret. Or a British tommy gets tight in K.L. and the Tamils startspitting at a Sikh policeman. The fact is that the component races of thisexquisite and impossible country just dont get on. There was, its true, a sortof illusion of getting on when the British were in full control. But self-deter-minations a ridiculous idea in a mixed-up place like this. Theres no nation.Theres no common culture, language, literature, religion. I know the Malayswant to impose all these things on the others, but that obviously wont work.Damn it all, their language isnt civilized . . . He drank his tea and, like anyEnglishman in the tropics, began to sweat after it. When we British finallyleave theres going to be hell.1


    Anthony Burgesss novel Beds in the East, from which these wordswere taken, was first published in 1959. Burgess, a colonial administra-tor in Malaya and Borneo from 1954 through 1960, knew well the ter-rain about which he wrote. In the novel, a friend, Lim Cheng-Po, is


  • talking to Victor Crabbe, a Chief Education Officer in the colonial gov-ernment. The passage refers to the three racesMalay, Chinese, andIndianthat were a social-structural legacy of the British. It illustrateshow local minds, such as Lim Cheng-Pos, could be colonized by theoverlords who invited an elite few to enter the margins of their innercircle.

    Those who participated in the planning for the new Malaysia werewell aware that they had inherited a volatile racial/cultural socialstructure that had been constructed and defined by the British. Fromits founding as an independent nation-state, Malaysia had the goal ofestablishing a successful multicultural society composed of three tradi-tionally isolated and mutually distrustful ethnic/cultural groups, theMalays, the Chinese, and the Indians. Malaysia has achieved remark-able economic and educational growth and thus far has avoidedalmost all of the destructive ethnic violence that has been the fate oftoo many new nations built, phoenix-like, from the ashes of exploita-tive colonial regimes. In this essay, I will draw on theories and researchfrom social psychology to offer hypotheses about why, despite successin implementing programs designed to bring about multiculturalalliances, many Malaysians remain concerned about the nations eth-nic fragility.

    Shamsul A.B. urges us to examine race and ethnicity in Malaysia notonly from the perspective of authority-defined social reality, onewhich is authoritatively defined by people who are part of the domi-nant power structure and whose positions are usually enshrined inpolitical, legal, religious, and academic documents, but also from theperspective of everyday-defined social reality . . . which is experi-enced by the people in the course of their everyday life and which isusually disparate, fragmented and intensely personal.2 He notes thateveryday social reality is usually encoded orally or in popular visualand verbal media. After a brief historical background, I will use com-ments, opinions, and news reports gleaned during my January 2002sojourn in Malaysia to sample some aspects of the everyday multicul-tural social reality of Malaysians. These comments reveal the underly-ing tensions among ethnic groups that must be addressed beforeMalaysia can fulfill its multicultural promise. I note with humility thatthe United States of America, likewise, has many racial and ethnic ten-sions that similarly need to be addressed.

    Roxane Harvey Gudeman


  • *****

    A. The British Three Cultures Model

    At independence in 1957, Malaysia was a multicultural nation withthree official major cultural groups in addition to a European gov-erning elite. These were the Malay and indigenous Bumiputera3 (peo-ple of the soil), the majority of whom were Muslim and spoke a dialectof Malay; the Indians, the majority of whom were Hindu Tamils; andthe Chinese, the majority of whom practiced a mix of Confucian, Bud-dhist, and Taoist spiritual traditions, and who spoke one of severalChinese dialects as well as Mandarin. That three and only three cul-tures were recognized reflected British colonial social reality morethan that of the Bumiputera, Indian, and Chinese communities. Eachgroup was administered differently by the British. Individuals found itin their self-interest to define themselves as a member of one of thecommunities in order to be officially recognized by the colonialoverseers.

    The Bumiputera were predominantly rural farmers or forest dwellersgoverned by sultans. Family law, but not civil or criminal law, washandled by traditional Islamic family courts. Few Malay childrenattended school. The Chinese and Indian communities had their ownplaces of worship, community organizations, and schools that taughtin Chinese or Tamil and used texts and other educational materialsimported from China or India. The British made no attempt to build acommon Malayan peninsular identity among the populace; the threecommunities existed largely segregated from each other. Speaking ofMalaysia in 1998, Zaleha Kamaruddin states:

    [T]he most salient feature of the multiethnic society is that colonialism ofalmost a hundred years, has contributed to a situation in which, until therecent development plan periods . . . , each ethnic group has remainedalmost entirely culturally distinct from the others. In short, the Chineseand Indians have managed to preserve their own social and culturalidentities within a new common environment and this has been madepossible through a network of overlapping cleavages in the society in theform of each groups own social institutions, religious institutions andeducational system.4

    Macalester International Vol. 12


  • Shamsul A. B. elegantly describes how British-trained anthropolo-gists helped construct the core ethnic identities found today inMalaysia that were reified in the Constitution as well as in the NewEconomic Plan and its successors: In the Malaysian context, colonialknowledge not only elaborated and explained about but also sustainedand justified the whole concept of plural society through the construc-tion of essentialized ethnic categories . . . [N]ation-states . . .have becomethe natural embodiments of history, territory and society built entirelyon colonial knowledge.5

    An elite British school system overlay the other systems of educa-tion and helped produce a very small, Anglicized multicultural elite:Only at the highest level of government and professions, is thereextensive, effective contact between members of the three racialgroups and even then, it is largely on the common grounds of theadopted British culture within each of the major ethnic societies ofMalaysia, this westernized elite remains aloof from the more tradition-ally united ethnic communities that make up most of the urban andvirtually all of the rural population.6 One of my informants com-mented that all that this group of people have in common is Britain, acore identity that has supplanted their local Malaysian ethnicities, as inthe case of Burgesss Lim Cheng-Po.

    In fact, at the time of independence, a much more complex social,linguistic, and religious reality lay beneath this simple tripartite socialcategorization. That Malaysia has three ethnic groups ignores thediversity within these communities. The categories are a constructionof the British who officially treated each group native Malays,immigrants from China, and immigrants from India as discrete,however great the diversity within them. The architects of the newnation-state of Malaysia inherited these categories and recognizedthem in the Constitution. In so doing, they helped create a self-fulfill-ing prophecy in which, over time, individual citizens have becamemore Malay, Chinese, or Indian. However, even today, theMalay, Chinese, and Indian communities actually are composed ofmany sub-communities of language, culture, and religious practice.7

    B. Creating a New Nation-State: Malaysia

    At the time of independence, elite representatives of the three racescame together to create a parliamentary democracy composed of stateswith considerable power over local affairs. A primary goal of the new

    Roxane Harvey Gudeman


  • national government was to create from the multiple communities asingle multicultural nation with a common identity. A common lan-guage and a shared educational system were seen as important toolsfor helping achieve this. Nair-Venugopal quotes the 1956 report of theEducation Committee: The ultimate objective of education policy inthis country must be to bring together children of all races under anational educational system in which the national language is the mainmedium of instruction.8 Islam, the religion of the Malays, was namedthe state religion. Malay was chosen to be the national language.9 Inreturn for giving Malay language and culture priority in the new state,the Chinese and Indian peoples were granted full citizenship for thefirst time and guaranteed freedom of religion and the right to practicetheir culture. The governing structure of Malay sultans remained in