Also in Jerusalem this week….

April 16, 2010 Agencies
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Clive Kessler, Professor of Sociology at the University of New South Wales delivered a lecture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem this week.

J-Wire publishes the text of his lecture….

Malaysia over the last two years has entered into a deep and inexorable “systemic crisis”,

A second major post-independence regime crisis.

Prof. Clive Kessler at the podium

The first post-independence political dispensation lasted from 1957 to 1969, when it collapsed in the wake of national elections that demonstrated rapidly diminishing support for the inter-ethnic governing coalition among both the nation’s Malay and non-Malay citizens.

A second dispensation was accordingly created, designed to last for twenty years until 1990.   Grounded in the view that the 1969 crisis had stemmed from a profound sense of Malay exclusion from the benefits of independence and national development, its core political imperative  was a far-reaching national project of pro-Malay affirmative action. Implementation of these bold programmes required the development of an ever-stronger state that came increasingly to dominate Malaysian society.

But even after 1990 the same policies continued to be pursued, in fact even from strongly than before. These expanded measures were now justified not as necessary for the overcoming of Malay relative social deprivation and exclusion but in the name of assuring “ketuanan melayu” or comprehensive Malay political dominance, ascendancy, or “hegemony”.

At the same time, the period from 1970 saw the pronounced rise of new forms of militant political Islam in Malaysia, which the government, especially under Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s long prime ministership, sought [with a major contribution from his protege Anwar Ibrahim from 1982 to 1997] to co-opt and outflank with its own Islamic “modernist” project of counter-IslamiSation.

Ultimately, competition between Dr. Mahathir’s government and the Malaysian Islamic Party [PAS] served to promote only the interests of PAS and the new Islamic political activists, not those of Dr. Mahathir, his government and party.

As a result, during Dr. Mahathir’s long prime ministership, the Malay political agenda became increasingly demanding, insistent and central; the Islamist political agenda and its promoters became increasingly adamant and ambitious;  and, to the extent that they remained distinct, the Malay political agenda itself increasingly became an Islamic, or Islamist, agenda. A convergence occurred, one that became increasingly central to and powerful within national political life.

The Islamic agenda had its own autonomous sources and impetus.  But the Islamist agenda also fed upon and was fuelled by Malay ethnic sentiments and ambitions. Conversely, the Islamist imperative  with its powerful political “idioms” and rhetoric were now increasingly employed to drive, and also served to promote–and even politically to “sacralise” and so place beyond question–the new imperative of “Ketuanan Melayu”/Malay ascendancy, a nationally defining project that the ever more powerful Malaysian state now saw as its main task to promote.

The cost of this growth in the power and centrality, even irresistibility, of the new Islamist and Malay “ethno-supremacist” agenda was threefold. These developments made it increasingly difficult for the state’s non-Malay citizens to support, or even respect, the government, its purposes and assurances; similarly, it offended the sensibilities of many younger, more inclusive and “democratically-inclined” Malays who gave high importance to social justice and the equality of all of the state’s citizens, irrespective of gender, religion and ethnicity; and it involved a largely covert reinterpretation of the Malaysian constitution, which had been promulgated in 1957 as the foundational charter for an emerging modern, social democratic, multiethnic, religiously pluralist and secular nation.

So long as Dr. Mahathir held power, he was able to hold together this ever more explosive mix, or bundle of policy contradictions. But under his milder successor  Abdullah Ahmad Badawi this was no longer possible.

As a result, the government, led by Abdullah Badawi to the polls in 2008, suffered a massive political reversal–again, as in 1969, among both Malay and non-Malay voters.  In effect, Malaysia’s second post-independence political dispensation, which under Dr. Mahathir was made to maintain an unduly protracted afterlife far beyond its 1990 “sunset-date”, was simply “blasted away” by the massive expression of anti-governments sentiment at the 2008 elections. Malaysia’s long serviceable governing formula and its underlying logic, that had been placed under growing strain by Islamist and Malay ethnosupremacist pressures [working both independent and ever more in concert] from 1970 to 2008, simply collapsed. It no longer enjoyed adequate public credibility or confidence.

In response, the Malaysian government since 2008 has sought to restore its position not by moving to the centre and restoring political and religious moderation and inter-ethnic conciliation. Instead it has decided that the major, and immediately urgent, imperative is to “shore up” and consolidate its position among the nation’s “core” political community, the Malays–who not only are the demographic and electoral majority but the group from whom in overwhelming part the nation’s police and armed forces are drawn.

To do this it has abandoned any pretence of commitment to a modernist Islamic “counter-mobilization”.  Instead, it has sought to recapture, corral and “harvest” Malay ethnic and committed Islamist support in  its radical Malay and Islamist opponents’ own preferred terms.

After half a century and more of an  “Islamist policy auction” between the government and the opposition Islamic party, the government has bowed out, ceased to make counter-bids. In a different metaphor, it now sings the same song as the Islamic opposition, the opposition’s chosen tune: perhaps in a whisper rather than in loud voice but none the less with full conviction [and out of perceived pragmatic necessity!].

Long-term developments over the preceding decades reached their culmination after the 2008 elections.  Except among a few brave and principled opponents outside of “official circles”, Malaysia has seen and assented to the retreat of the Islamic modernist and the secularist alternatives to the new assertive Islamism.   Those who had long been the main opponents of militant political Islam from within the government and political establishment have now capitulated to Islamist pressures and demands.

As early as 1969 the Islamic party had made clear its determination to use the political system of electoral democracy tactically and strategically: to deprive the Islamically more moderate and secular government of popular Malay support and so make the government ultimately dependent on the votes that the islamic party could mobilize. By denying the government popular malay support and religious legitimacy, it sought to acquire the leverage enabling it to make the government do its bidding, to become its hostage in policy terms. That strategy has now succeeded and come to fruition. The next stage of malaysian politics now begins.

As Malaysia now seeks, after the collapse of the second, to construct its third post-independence political “dispensation”, it is doing so under conditions where the ideas and goals, as well as the continuing political dynamism and impetus, of the ethnically-minded Malay Islamists now set the ideological terms of the national agenda and, as both government and Malay Islamist opposition alike now view things, its unfolding “narrative”. .

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