Sunday, March 09, 2008

Abdullah Badawi, Anwar Ibrahim and the Politics of Race , Ethnicity and Affirmative Action in Malaysia

People, especially people in the developing world, like to point to the state of race and ethnic relations in the United States as symbolic of the evils of a subordinating race or ethnic privileging culture. Those systems of subordination, of social constructions of race and ethnic hierarchy, people believe, are at the root of flawed legal systems, and through them, of flawed approached to international law and governance. The developing world might provide a place where important lessons in how to manage multi ethnic and multi religious societies might be learned. And where better than Malaysia--a model of a nation whose previous leaders might from time to time advertise to the world as a model of forward thinking and progressive innovation in matters of race and ethnic harmony.

It was with that in mind that the recent elections in Malaysia remind us that race and ethnic subordination is not solely a problem of rich states with majority European populations. Nor is it necessarily an issue of Christian or European arrogance. The techniques and imperatives of subordination, and privileging appear to bedevil many societies. In the case of Malaysia, the players are not white Christian Europeans but Malay Muslims, Indians and Chinese. Malaysian Prime Minister Sworn In, BBC News Online, March 10, 2008.
Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has been sworn in, two days after his coalition suffered its worst election result in five decades. . . . The ruling National Front won more than half of all seats in parliament, but it still suffered unprecedented losses and lost its two-thirds majority. The government had expected a drop in support amid growing concern over ethnic tensions in multi-cultural Malaysia and unease over rising food prices.

Id. As a consequence, marginalized populations of Indians and Chinese also failed to vote. "But the result was worse than anticipated, with the opposition making sizeable gains. Many voters from Indian and Chinese minorities - who make up more than a third of the population - failed to turn out for the coalition." Id.

So what is going on in Malaysia? And how does it relate to law? "Modern Malaysia is built on the co-existence of three ethnic groups - Malays, Chinese and Indians." Robin Brant, Malaysia's Lingering Ethnic Divide, BBC News Online, March 4, 2008. But the reality, like that of racial and ethnic neutrality in the United States, points in a different direction. First, law serves as a technique of subordination and distinction--that is, of dividing society into its various classes and ordering them vertically. Emblematic, perhaps, is the recent legislation on the use of the word "Allah." See Malaysian Row Over Word for God, BBC News Online, Dec. 28, 2007. after passage of an act limiting the use of the word "Allah" to Muslims in in Malaysia, officials began targeting a Catholic newspaper in Malaysia. That newspaper, along with a the Sabah Evangelical Church of Borneo sued.
In the Malay language "Allah" is used to mean any god, and Christians say they have used the term for centuries. Opponents of the ban say it is unconstitutional and unreasonable. It is the latest in a series of religious rows in largely Muslim Malaysia, where minority groups claim their rights are being eroded. A spokesman for the Herald, the newspaper of the Catholic Church in Malaysia, said a legal suit was filed after they received repeated official warnings that the newspaper could have its licence revoked if it continued to use the word.

Malaysian Row Over Word for God. A victory for the Christians might inflame Muslim sentiment, especially if that inflammation is allowed to ignite at carefully orchestrated Friday sermons. A victory for the state suggests the difficulty of multiculturalism and tolerance the consequence of which is inevitably the deepening of hierarchy in fact all the while preserving the forms of equality.

But equally symptomatic are the responses to assemblies of non-Muslim peoples in Malaysia. Scores Charged Over Hindu Rally, BBC News Online, Nov. 28, 2007. In this case, the law of assembly was the touchstone for the construction of verticle hierarchy with a vigorous horizontal enforcement of law.
At least 80 ethnic Indians have been charged with illegal assembly in Malaysia, after a weekend of protests in the capital, Kuala Lumpur. Activists appeared in several courts around the country to deny the charges, and many were freed on bail. Thousands of Hindu activists took to the streets to protest at what they regard as decades of discrimination by the mainly Malay-Muslim government.
Scores Charged Over Hindu Rally. The issues here are both ethnic and linguistic The protesters used Tamil language and were targeted as South Asians. The courts freed many of the arrested on the grounds that the allegedly seditious statements had not been translated from the Tamil, andf the government sought to overturn that determination. Id. "At least 80 ethnic Indians have been charged with illegal assembly in Malaysia, after a weekend of protests in the capital, Kuala Lumpur. Activists appeared in several courts around the country to deny the charges, and many were freed on bail. Thousands of Hindu activists took to the streets to protest at what they regard as decades of discrimination by the mainly Malay-Muslim government." Id. These protests continued and produced the appearance of a response of the eve of the election. Robin Brant, Malaysia's Lingering Ethnic Divide, BBC News Online, March 4, 2008 ("Malaysia's prime minister has ordered his government to take a fresh look at recruitment levels of non-Malays, after thousands of ethnic Indians took to the streets to protest against what they say is years of discrimination." Id.). As in the United States under apartheid, and thereafter, the points of contention include the use of law to effect differences in treatment--from unequal funding of education to employment opportunities, for minority South Asians and ethnic Chinese. See Id.

"Concern about racial tension boiling over is not just because of what might happen, but because of what did happen. Hundreds died in racial riots in Malaysia in 1969, when the country was barely a decade old." Robin Brant, Malaysia's Lingering Ethnic Divide, BBC News Online, March 4, 2008. But the solution of the government has been to suppress all discussion of inequality, especially public expression that is orgainzed.

Second, it serves as the focus of political action. Political action in Malaysia takes two forms. The first is characterized by an aggressive set of actions by the dominant power to use its control of the apparatus of state to make opposition more difficult by a strict and strategic application of law (in the United States that is done through control of the polling places, vote counting structures and in determinations of who is actually eligible to vote or stand for election).
The government enjoyed many entrenched advantages: huge resources; a docile, even sycophantic, press; permission more readily granted for big rallies; a ban on the candidacy of Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister who is now the opposition’s best-known figure. The government has denied Mr Anwar’s allegations of vote-rigging in close-fought constituencies. But sceptical opposition supporters were made even more suspicious last week when the Election Commission went back on its decision to use indelible ink to identify those who had voted.

Political Tsunami?, The Economist Online, March 10, 2008. The second is characterized by the political reaction--a willingness of sometimes distrustful opposition parties to come together. "Malaysia’s three main opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance Party, Parti Islam SeMalaysia and Parti Keadilan Rakyat have agreed to cooperate with each other in the upcoming March 8th general election. They have decided to field single candidates in most constituencies in Malaysia to avoid contesting with one another and to provide a viable alternative to the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition." Anwar Ibrahim on opposition strategies in Malaysia election, Radio Singapore International Online, Feb. 19, 2008.

Enter Anwar Ibrahim--Mahatir Mohammad's great rival, once disgraced and ruined in Malaysia on charges of personal, political and social corruption.
He traveled abroad extensively after his release from jail. In recent months he focused on the election campaign against the National Front. Anwar _ considered one of Malaysia's most charismatic speakers, second only to Mahathir _ crisscrossed the country ahead of the elections and attracted crowds of thousands to his campaign speeches. He spoke of rising prices, racial tensions, rampant corruption and crime, striking a chord with ordinary Malaysians. «Anwar's role in the campaign was very important,» said Johns Hopkins University's Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert who was in Malaysia to monitor the polls. «He was a conduit for the opposition parties and the key player in bringing their message across nationally."
Malaysia's Anwar Ibrahim Resurrects Political Career With Striking Election Success,, March 12, 2008. There are lessons here for the American polity as it heads toward its own elections. A politics of race and ethnic sorting may produce a certain strength, but ultimately working toward a politics of unity produces greater rewards.

But the journey there is perverse and ironic, at least from the perspective of American law, in its progressive manifestations. In Malaysia, affirmative action was targeted to the majority Malay Muslim population and disfavored the Chinese and Indian minorities said to control too much of the economic life of the nation. Ina sense Malaysia presented a more benign version of South Africa than the typical situation of subordination (where a majority subordinates minority populations).
The result reflected widespread disaffection among the country's ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities over social and racial inequalities, mainly stemming from the affirmative-action program known as the New Economic Policy. It was started in 1971 to help the Malays, following violent race riots in 1969 that were blamed on the wealth gap between poor Malays and wealthy Chinese. The NEP gives a host of privileges to Malays including preference in government contracts.
Parts of Malaysia Begin to Roll Back Race Based Policy, The Wall Street Journal on line, March 12, 2008. Part of the problem is corruption, the great temptation and underbelly of governmental control of the distribution of economic power among its people. "Lim Guan Eng, who was sworn in yesterday as the chief minister of the Chinese-dominated Penang, announced that state contracts will no longer be awarded based on NEP. Many state contracts are known to go to businesses with links to the ruling party." Id. It was this sort of corruption that first resulted in Anwar's downfall in the late 1990s when he began to campaign against it. It was this sort of corruption that helped bring Badawi and his party closer to defeat. "In this election, it won just 51% of the votes; and 63% of parliamentary seats. This was its worst performance ever in Malaysia’s 50 years of independence, and crucially, for the first time since 1969, the BN lost the two-thirds majority in parliament it needs to amend the constitution." Political Tsunami?, The Economist Online, March 10, 2008.
For proponents and opponents of affirmative action, the events in Malaysia provides a tantalizing morsel. Affirmative aciton programs vest a great power in states to manage the relaitonships amoing distinct ethnic, racial and religious ocmmunities. That power itself can be a source of corruption. This is a great lesson in Malaysia. It can also be a temptation to seek revenge for past oppressions and to impose new systems of hierarchy in the name of undoing prior wrongs. This is another lesson from Malaysia. It is too easy for dominant grpoups, aided by the power of the state apparatus, to use affirmative aciton programs as a fig leaf to cover the erection of new systems of subordinaiton to replace the ones the affirmative action was meant to undo. The great trap for once oppressed comminities is to avoid the replication of systems of subordination in the name of cultural, religious, ethnic or post colonial cleansing. This is the Robert Mugabe syndrome, so destructive in Zimbabwe.
At the same time, governmental power power may serve as the key factor to undoing systems of race, religious or ethnic hierarchy that is oppressive. That is the great value of affirmative action programs undertaken by states. It can serve as a means to bring an unbalanced system back into balance where the goal is the maintenance of a state in which multiple ethnic, racial and religious groups can share in public and private life in a more or less horizontally equal way. This is easier to do when a majority group designs state systems to share power. That was the case in the United States. It is harder where minority groups hold the superior position. But the United States has shown how difficult even a limited program of affirmative action van be. Over the course of the last half century it has arguably produced great sifts in housing, radical changes in education and support for educational programs, and little sustained outward progress that can stand in the absence of government supprot. On the other hand, sffirmative action has been a greater success than usually described at the cultural level. Social and ciultural norms change slowly. A sustained governmental support of affirmative action has at last seeped into the private sector--not perhaps deeply enough to satisfy everyone--but deep enough to be noticed.
But both Malaysia and the United States show both the need for and difficulty of affirmative action programs in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious democratic polity where the incentives to use the state andits power to reinstate or solidify systems of subordinaiton, or to resist its dismantling, are very strong. In these effoirts, law serves as a great tool, but one equally capable of great harm as great good.

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