Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Southeast Asia

29 March 2022

For those that hoped Malaysia’s 2018 change of government might deliver reforms, the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan government and its reform agenda has been a tough lesson, Amrita Malhi writes.

It has been a rough few years for observers keen to engage Malaysia on politics and policy.

Consider two of the failed reform projects from this period – the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government’s moves to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and its implementation of a suite of new domestic ‘National Harmony’ laws.

These initiatives were aimed at demonstrating Malaysia’s commitment to human rights at home and on the world stage, including by protecting citizens from racist speech and action while replacing a previous Sedition Act with new legislation more compatible with the then-ruling coalition’s democratic reform aspirations.

To this end, the PH coalition began its brief term in government – which lasted from its 2018 election victory to its disintegration in early 2020 – with a proposal to implement three new bills first drawn up, but not progressed, under former Barisan Nasional (BN) Prime Minister Najib Razak.

These were the Racial and Religious Hate Crimes Bill, a National Harmony and Reconciliation Bill, and a National Harmony and Reconciliation Commission Bill.

By 2019, the government had been forced to reverse its decision to ratify ICERD after a well-organised campaign against it. The move was opposed on the grounds that it would contravene the Malaysian Constitution’s Article 153, which, its opponents argued, safeguarded the ‘special position’ of Malay Muslims.

Many opponents also argued that any government that ratified ICERD would be signalling that it wished to dismantle many of Malaysia’s policies and reservations that favour Malay Muslims, many of which have a history dating back to its New Economic Policy (NEP), first launched in 1971.

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Some of them even argued that the ICERD proposal was a replay of the Malayan Union of the 1940s – a state structure that the British hoped would collapse Malaya’s colonial racial distinctions into a single, non-differentiated, category of citizenship for all Malayans who qualified.

In post-Second World War Malayan society, however – traumatised as it was by war, Japanese occupation, and a failed communist revolution followed by racial violence and the restoration of British rule – a furious campaign against the Union took off, and Malayan public life was basically reorganised along racial lines.

The campaign gave rise to the formation of the Malay nationalist party, the United Malays National Organisation, which held government as part of the BN coalition for six decades before the election of PH and holds strongly that Malay Muslims should have special rights.

This racial reorganisation was reinforced via a spectacular campaign of violence against Malaya’s multi-racial independence movement, at the core of which was the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), but whose ranks were swelled by many ordinary Malayans from all its official ‘races.’

This campaign, triggered by MCP attacks on British interests and lasting from 1948 to 1960, was called the Malayan Emergency, and it led the British to ban not only the MCP but all other parties of the Left, including the Malay Muslim Left.

It drew in British and Australian troops, as well as troops from elsewhere in the British Empire, to fighting the MCP’s insurgency.

One lasting consequence of this history for today’s decision-makers is that this struggle led to many in the country actively associating multiracial politics with Chinese people, and Chinese people with communism.

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More than 20,000 Chinese Malayans were forcibly deported to China by 1949 and more than half a million were relocated from the rural hinterland to a network of more than 500 detention camps – which were called ‘New Villages.’ There, Malayan Chinese were coercively reconstructed as anti-communists – regardless of whether they sympathised with the MCP to begin with – before they were ultimately reincorporated into independent Malaya, which the became established as a highly racialised state from 1957.

Activists mobilised memories of this period and fed them into the anti-ICERD campaign. And once the ratification proposal was dead, so too, in effect, was the proposal to introduce and debate the other bills on national harmony.

In 2019, PH was thrashed in a by-election that paved the way for the coalition’s eventual collapse in 2020 – with the coalition struggling to manage the Malay Muslim voter backlash that followed the anti-ICERD campaign.

The National Harmony bills, incidentally, might have helped regulate some of the hate speech that accompanied that campaign had they already existed, but only under conditions that might have allowed the authorities to tackle racially provocative political campaigning. This highly successful form of campaigning, however, is a sensitive subject that is unlikely to be addressed.

Anti-racism activists, for their part, argued to their opponents and the Malaysian public that ICERD was never a threat to the Malaysian constitution or any policies or reservations aimed at restructuring Malaysian society to benefit Malay Muslims, so long as they could be defended on equal opportunity grounds.

It is questionable, however, whether such arguments are relevant to campaigners who are, in essence, for the continued racial structuring of Malaysian society and politics, and whose arguments recall the 1940s and 50s – when a multiracial Malaya was a communist-friendly premise and therefore considered a dangerous threat.

This historical context reveals that it is likely little can be done to address Malaysia’s racial politics without serious ideological and structural shifts transforming the political incentives that operate in today’s Malaysia.

Decision-makers both within and watching Malaysia who might hope that it will move on from race as its key organising principle should remember the way that race was instrumentalised during the Emergency as a tool for containing communism. This will help them to understand its resilience against all other models for imagining national citizenship.

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