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Keeping the balance pays off

By Prof. Dr. Shamsul Amri Baharuddin

Published in The Star (FOCUS: Thoughts for the 21st Century) 7th May 2000 (p.20).

Both in the popular and academic idiom, Malaysia has been called “plural society”.
It simply means Malaysia is a society where different ethnic group lives side by side
in their separate enclaves and are involved in different economic activities but
rarely interact except, literally, at the market place.

Malaysia is instead a multi-ethnic society. It is one in which the different ethnic

groups not only interact at the marketplace but in almost all avenues of social life.

Malaysia’s multi-ethnic society therefore is characterized by an ever-present and

ever-evolving pluralism, indeed positive and creative one.

That pluralism is framed within a set of social structures that have evolved and
instituted within the context of our social and natural history.

For instance, there exist a range of social divisions within Malaysian society; ethnic,
sub-ethnic, regional class, linguistic, gender, demographic and so on. Each has a
positive and negative potential to contribute towards the maintenance of the
country’s social stability.

There is an obvious presence and co-existence of different societal forms - from the
hunter-gatherer type found around the orang asli group to the post-modern
corporate high society in urban Kuala Lumpur – indeed by an astonishing range by
any standard.

Such social structures are bound to create contradiction and tensions. It is no

surprise that some describe the social condition in Malaysia as being in the “state of
stable tension”.

Perhaps it is useful to recount and reflect not only how we began as a plural society
and evolve into a multi-ethnic society but also how a set of enduring values and
strengths have come to underpin this successful transition.

The plural society is the result of colonial construction, especially after the British
imported indentured labor, since late 19th century, from south China and South

That the major ethnic groups – Malay, Chinese and Indian – were able to survive
within their own social and cultural spheres was the result of the British divide-and-
rule policy, which included administrative, educational, land and labor policies that
ensured the ethnically-divisive pattern survived, thus safeguarding British economic
and political interests.

The British rule was not unchallenged. There were the nationalist, the trade
unionist, and renegade colonial officers.
It, however, managed to keep a relatively peaceful and stable society through the
implementation of coercion rules, discouraging the formation of across ethnic
groups alliances, such as the multi-ethnic and multi-class trade unions, and
pursuing a highly ethicized educational policy in the form of vernacular primary
school system.

It is within this important historical-conceptual development that we have to

contextualise the bitter experience of the Second World War and the Japanese
Occupation, an experience that forced the locals to rethink about the past and the

For instance the indigenous and the immigrant population came to realise that the
orang puteh (literally white man) was not invincible. The popular image was that the
British army in armoured cars was humbled by the Japanese army on bicycles.

Also, the pro-indigenous nationalist policy of the Japanese allowed some Malays, in
a limited way, a taste of power and to have its own little political space. Many of the
local Chinese were instead massacred by the Japanese who had just won the war in
Manchuria. It was no surprise than that the British won the Chinese over to provide
a strong anti-Japanese movement.

The downside of the Japanese occupation on inter-ethnic relationship, especially of

the Sino-Malay, was that it transformed the nature of the relationship from that of a
“peaceful difference” to an “armed confrontation”.

The latter erupted immediately after the Japanese surrendered to the British. Soon
after the British imposed military rule in Malaya and it lasted until 1960, first as the
British Military Administration and later the emergency 1948 – 1960.

It was in the first 15 years (1945 – 1960) after the war that the plural society
invented by the British was slowly reshaped, gradually moving towards multi-ethnic
formation. This time for a different reason – largely economic but not entirely.

The efforts at the Nation-Making in Malaysia began in earnest through an endless

series of bargaining between the different ethnic groups in Malaysia.

In 1948, the federation of Malaya Agreement was instituted which became the
future basis of Malaysia’s enduring political framework, that is, federalism.

The 3 central key features of the reinvention of Malaysia’s plural society and its
subsequent transformation into a multi-ethnic nation-state were ethnic bargaining,
development planning, and security.

The introduction of modern electoral politics, where ethnic based parties were
allowed to be formed and to contest in open, democratic elections but as coalition
partners, was the central pillar of the “ethnic bargaining” process. The subsequent
successfully drawing-up of the Constitution of post-colonial Malaysia was indeed the
most significant outcome of the bargain.
Indeed; the Malaysian Constitution, with all his imperfections, has been perceived
popularly by many as the “social-contract” that binds all the social groups.

In the economic sphere, the British launched the first five-year plan, the Draft
Development 1950-1955, not only as an effort to organize and control public
spending and resource allocation but also as a platform where an economic bargain
between the ethnic communities could be struck in the most amicable way.

To ensure economic stability, security became critical. The emergency in the 1948 –
1960 set the standards. Many rules and regulations were introduced.

The introduction of the identity card, the Internal Security Act and other rules were
originally meant to safeguard national security. But it is also obvious to everyone
that the meaning of national security could be redefined by the powers-that-be.

Nonetheless, these three key elements – ethnic bargaining, development planning

and security – became the enduring values and strengths as well as basis of the
framework for multi-ethnic Malaysia.

The stiffest test to this framework happened during the May 1969 riots in Kuala
Lumpur. The contents of the three key elements were reconstituted once again.

For instance the National Consultative Council with multi-ethnic representation was
immediately formed after the riot. The Rukunegara, an official ideology of national
unity, was also created as a guide for all Malaysians.

The Pro-Malay affirmative action policy called the New Economic Policy (1971-1990)
was introduced to bridge the economic gap between the bumiputera and the non-

The NEP has largely been a success even though not everyone was pleased,
especially when Malaysia was hit by the economic crisis in the mid 1980s, which led
to the reorientation of the economy from that of agriculture dependent to

This work well for Malaysian for nearly a decade when it experienced an annual
8+% growth rate, This occurred within the framework of the new National
Development Plan (NDP), introduced in 1991, that replaced the NEP.

Prior to the NDP’s introduction, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad,
launched in 1991, arguably, the most innovative ever strategy towards fostering
national unity.

It was “Vision 2020”, in which he stated that the creation of a “united Malaysian
nation”, or Bangsa Malaysia, is a pre-requisite to Malaysia’s ambition of becoming a
developed, industrial nation by 2020.

When the world financial crisis struck Malaysia in July 1997, the Government formed
a National Economic Action Council consisting of representatives from the public
and private sector as well as the different ethnic communities. The bargaining, as a
form of regrouping, took place almost immediately.

It is quite clear from the above that Malaysians, especially those in the Government,
have consistently resorted to ethnic bargaining, development planning and the
application of “appropriate” security measures both in times of crisis and peace.

This has allowed Social contradictions, both open and latent, engendered by ethnic
and other sources of differences to be resolved as amicably as possible.

But this does not stop Malaysians and foreigners alike to adopt either an “alarmist”
perspective or a “consensus” approach in the way the view Malaysian Multi-ethnic

For the alarmist, Malaysia is always viewed as facing an impending breakdown of

inter-ethnic relations. But those adopting the consensus approach, believe in a
“moving social equilibrium”, concept, namely, that if any social, particularly ethnic,
disequilibrium were to happen in Malaysia, it will be followed immediately by a new

Unlike the experience in Sri Lanka, the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo, ethnicity or
ethnic difference is not anti-thetical to nation-formation and national consensus as
the Malaysian case has amply demonstrated.

Irrespective of which side of the fence one belongs, one has to agree that the
unusually fast tempo of open political activism in recent months has had a
tremendous “conscientisation” effect on Malaysian psyche.

Malaysians are now confident that they can demand change without risking ethnic
strife. They also know that enough pressure can make the Government compromise.

Malaysians are now using the electoral process to bargain peacefully.

It is obvious that the strength of Malaysian Multi-ethnic society lies its creative
ability to survive a “negotiated existence”, transforming in a conscious manner a
contradiction to consensus through a peaceful and a civilised effort conducted at all
levels of society.

Perhaps that is why some have come to describe Malaysia as “bolehland”, in this
context defined in a non-pejorative manner.