No more conflict, but unity remains elusive in Malaysia

Author: Shamsul A. B., National University of Malaysia

As a pluralistic society characterised by a multitude of diversity that was shaped and consolidated during the colonial era, Malaysia exhibits a great deal of differentiation among its population. Since the end of the Second World War there were a number of times when these contradictions ended in violent conflicts resulting in the loss of lives, the last being in May 1969.

More than four decades have passed since the conflict. Malaysians have realised that violence is not an option, because during that period they have enjoyed an increased quality of life and a huge overall reduction of poverty, from 50 per cent to less than 5 per cent.

The middle class has expanded and Malaysians have embraced consumerism as a way of life. Most significantly, they are all driven by the desire for social mobility — horizontal, vertical and spatial.

Education is the key vehicle for social mobility. Peace and stability is necessary to ensure the desired social mobility is achieved, and violence has to be avoided at all cost.

Yet conflict persists in Malaysia, it has merely turned non-violent. This continuity is because of the inherent contradictions that shape the social dynamics of Malaysian society. These non-violent, mostly verbal conflicts are generated by deep-seated grievances, prejudices and stereotypes.

Many are of the opinion that it is appropriate to label the verbal, non-violent conflict among Malaysians as ‘suka bertikam lidah, tidak berparangan’ (prefer tongue wagging instead of machete wielding). ‘Bertikam lidah’ (literally ‘tongue fighting’) can be seen and heard everyday in Malaysia in various forms, in the mass media and at the local coffee shops. The continuous open and public ‘tongue fighting’ or ‘talk conflict’ can be viewed as an attention-seeking phenomenon that, in turn, begets bargaining and negotiations in order to find amicable solutions to any unresolved issue at hand.

The seven ‘major axes of contradictions’ identified by research as being articulated through the ‘talk conflict’ are ethnicity, religion, social class, education, urban–rural identity, gender and generation (young–old). They are not mutually exclusive — one source of conflict can generate and/or build on another. It is the ethnic contradiction that everyone sees immediately because everyone belongs to an ethnic group and, to a certain extent, therefore, the level of ‘ethnic consciousness’ is quite high.

People forget or ignore the class they belong to, perhaps because everyone, irrespective of class, enjoys government subsidies for many items. Talking about class, especially the middle class, is talking about ‘guilt’.  Individuals feel they have neglected the less fortunate rakyat (citizens) and must assist the latter in their struggle by organising street demonstrations and other form of protest. The generation gap is considered more significant than class differences. The gap between the urban and rural areas has been highlighted by analysts too when looking at voting patterns in Malaysia.

All the talk about national reconciliation in Malaysia under the 1-Malaysia policy is nothing new. The bargaining and negotiation, an exercise of seeking reconciliation in various forms, has been a continuous process in the country. They have become almost a set of subterranean permanent structural features of Malaysia’s modern post-independence society.

In spite of these structural features, Malaysia does not enjoy the idealised ‘national unity’ (read ‘unity is uniformity’) that its citizens and politicians dream of. Yet it does enjoy a certain admired level of peace and stability due to its ability to continuously bargain and negotiate on every little thing that its citizens identify as sources of the contradictions listed earlier.

Every Malaysian works hard to maintain this peace and stability so they can carve a successful career and enjoy a high quality of life motivated by social mobility. This ability has produced social cohesion in the last 40 years, especially in the post-May 1969 period.

Amongst Malaysians there is plenty of ‘tongue wagging but not parang wielding’, and Malaysians continuously ‘talk conflict, but walk cohesion’. Yet the media, local and abroad, is understandably interested mainly in the ‘tongue wagging’ and ‘talk conflict’ aspect of Malaysian life. But to Malaysians, open violent conflict such as that witnessed in Sri Lanka over the last three decades is not an option.

Still, social cohesion does not imply life is plain sailing in Malaysia. Peace and stability cannot be taken for granted and perceived as something given or natural. The recent articulations of a perceived ‘decline in racial relations’ in Malaysia have been the result of individuals expressing publicly, through social media, subterranean ‘racists’ stereotypes and prejudices. Such ‘hate’ statements are not expressed in the mainstream print media or the on-line news portals, like Malaysiakini or Malaysian Insider.

This supports the opinion of Abraham Foxman and Christopher Wolf in their recent book, Viral Hate: Containing its Spread on the Internet (2013). They argued that the internet has allowed both individual and collective-initiated hate statements to be made publicly without much legal control.

Talk conflict, articulated in the form of ‘racist’ or ‘hate’ statements on ethnic relations in Malaysia in social media, shall continue. It grabs the attention of many because of its apparent newsworthiness. This is a worry and must be addressed, but Malaysians should also look at the other axes of contradictions: religion, social class, education, gender, spatial and inter-generational. They have to deal with them delicately.

Shamsul A. B. is Professor at the Institute for Ethnic Studies, National University of Malaysia.

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