Reformasi: Race and Identity in Malaysian Politics in a Globalized Era

        Race has truly been the dominant organizing principle in Malaysian politics since the nationalist movement following World War II, and has arguably governed Malaysian society itself since the founding of the British Straits Settlements of the nineteenth century.  In 1998 and 1999, a number of forces linked to modern globalization coincided uniquely and dramatically to call that dominance into question.  This took the form of the Reformasi social movement and its effects on the 1999 general elections.  Ultimately, under conditions of globalization, race is slowly but fundamentally losing its central role in the country’s political culture.
        A mixture of authoritarianism and economic success had generally suppressed Malaysia’s racial discontents since its independence in 1957, with a few notable exceptions.  Calls for change in 1998 were initially triggered by a challenge to the country’s economic success, in the form of the East Asian financial crisis of 1997 and 1998 (Weiss, 2006).  The value of the Malaysian currency, the ringgit, fell by half, the local stock exchange and the property market plummeted, and bad loans increased.   At the very top of government, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed and Anwar Ibrahim, his deputy and heir apparent, differed sharply on how to deal with the crisis.  Anwar supported conventional free market measures including possible recourse to the International Monetary Fund.  Mahathir saw this as an unacceptable surrender of national economic sovereignty.  Meanwhile, slow attempts at corporate and financial restructuring added to public discontent, and preferential treatment for government-selected firms in the form of rescue packages made alleged corruption and cronyism plainly visible.  Mahathir fired his heir apparent and enacted strict capital and currency controls.  The economy indeed improved, but the leader-in-waiting would not go quietly (Weiss, 2006).
        Though Anwar’s firing coincided with the imposition of economic controls, the official reason given for it was alleged sexual misconduct.  In a move that was shocking to many Malaysians, Mahathir himself graphically and explicitly described his former deputy’s alleged sodomy and adultery to the press (Weiss, 2006).  Though these alleged acts are considered crimes in Malaysia, Anwar spent eighteen days before his eventual arrest addressing large audiences on "justice, the purported evils of Mahathirism, the prevalence of cronyism and corruption, the need for social safety nets, and the urgency of reform" (Weiss, 2006, p. 129).  His message attracted the support of opposition parties, and Islamic NGOs with their extensive grassroots networks.  After a massive rally in the capital on September 20th, 1998 that included members of such groups and those who sympathized with them, Anwar was finally arrested and held under the Internal Security Act (ISA) before being formally charged (Weiss, 2006).  Opposition to this unrepealed war measure, effectively allowing indefinite detention without trial, became a touchstone for the new movement.  However, the financial crisis and the arrest of Anwar would prove to be catalysts for expressions of much wider discontent.  Central demands of the emerging social movement included media and judicial independence, an end to corruption and cronyism, and from some quarters, greater Islamization to combat alleged increasing immorality in government and society.  A move away from ethnicized politics also became a significant goal for many in the movement (Weiss, 2006).
    This research paper examines how globalization is affecting the implications of ‘race’ and ‘identity’ in Malaysian politics.  In particular, it investigates the significance of the Reformasi movement, civil society networks, religion, and the internet in challenging dominant constructions of identity, and considers the political and social implications.  It looks at whether Reformasi was an anomaly or if it in fact indicated wider trends and potential for change regarding the dominance of race and identity in the country’s politics.  The first section provides a theoretical framework based on Manuel Castells’ theories of social change in the information age and the network society.  The second section gives historical context of the ethnicization and racialization of Malaysian politics.  The third section discusses the continuation of dominant racial discourses in the political sphere, and the challenges these discourses faced in the period between independence and Reformasi.  The fourth section looks at the role of civil society organizations during Reformasi, in particular the processes of networking and coalition-building.  The fifth section assesses the rise of Islam as a source of identity vis-à-vis ethnic Malay identity, and how this manifested itself during the movement.  The sixth section looks at how media has been used both to reinforce hegemonic discourses of race and to challenge them.  It considers how internet access shook things up during Reformasi, despite government attempts to maintain media control.  The last section discusses the legacy of the Reformasi movement in these areas, as well as potential for further change regarding the place of race and identity in the country’s politics.  Civil society, religion, and media are changing and interacting in new ways that offer opportunities for new discourses on the subject, and Reformasi was a manifestation of that.  The Malaysian experience is relevant to other populations around the globe that are negotiating identities under similar forces of globalization, with similar tools of a globalized era.

Theoretical Framework
        My analysis will be guided by Manuel Castells’ theories on resistance identities as the new sources of project identities, and thus of social change, in the information age and the network society.  Castells (1997) hypothesizes that "in general terms, who constructs collective identity, and for what, largely determines the symbolic content of this identity, and its meaning for those identifying with it or placing themselves outside of it" (p. 7).  In other words, at its core, the construction and perpetuation of collective identity is an exercise of power.  As will be seen, the British colonizers in what is now Malaysia constructed race as the principal identity to serve their own economic purposes, using it to determine people’s function in the colonial economy.  Post-independence elites perpetuated the primacy of race so as to maintain political support.  Race became what Castells (1997) calls the legitimizing identity, "introduced by the dominant institutions of society to extend and rationalize their domination vis-à-vis social actors" (p. 8).  It generates civil society (in the original Gramscian sense of the term) which reinforces it.
    When structural power dominates completely, there is little space for people to self-identify using categories other than those endorsed by the legitimizing identity.  However, Castells (1997) argues that while identities can originate from dominant institutions, "they become identities only when and if social actors internalize them, and construct their meaning around this internalization" (p. 7).  Resistance identity is created by those actors which are stigmatized or devalued by the dominant institutions, and leads to the creation of communes or communities.
    Project identity is "when social actors, on the basis of whichever cultural materials are available, build a new identity that redefines their position in society and, by so doing, seek the transformation of the overall social structure" (Castells, 1997, p. 8).  It is argued that this produces subjects, or "collective agents of social transformation" (p. 67).  While legitimizing identity is a construction of structural power, the construction of resistance and project identities are manifestations of individual or group autonomy.
    According to Castells (1997), in modernity, subjects and project identity emerged from Gramscian civil society; but in the network society, they grow from communal resistance.  This places identity politics at the very forefront of social change in the network society.  Castells (1997) believes that "the transformation of communal resistance into transformative subjects is the precise realm for a theory of social change in the information age" (p. 11-12).  However, this does not necessarily suggest a renewed importance for the politics of race and ethnicity.  Indeed, Castells (1997) asserts that ethnicity alone is not a sufficient basis for communes in the network society, as other forms of identity gain in relative significance.  Instead, ethnicity interacts with locality, religion, and nation to create cultural communes that are broader than ethnicity.
    As the site of identity construction shifts from structural power to group and individual autonomy, so to does the site of media and communications activity.  Hegemonic state media could put forward legitimizing identities more successfully in the past, but Castells (2003) sees three mass media challenges faced by nation-states, namely "globalization and interlocking of ownership; flexibility and pervasiveness of technology; autonomy and diversity of the media" (p. 254).  If this contributes to the fragmentation and diversification of social interests, then Castells (2003) would believe it does the same to identities, which are reconstituted in new forms.  The state’s decreasing ability to address the new, increasing, and diverse demands of its citizenry is what Habermas (1973) called a ‘legitimation crisis’.  It is thus not surprising that Castells (2003) considers media control "a cornerstone of state power" (p. 259).

Constructions of Race and Identity in Historical Context
    To understand the Reformasi movement as either a symptom or an agent of change vis-à-vis race and identity in Malaysian politics, it is important to understand how the concepts became so central to political discourse in the first place.  Those who construct collective identity often wish to give the impression that it is not constructed at all, but somehow primordial, innate, and unchanging.  This has been central to race in Malaysia since colonial times, even though as late as the second half of the nineteenth century, the Malay language actually lacked a word for the concept of ‘race’ (Mandal, 2003).
        In pre-colonial Malaysia and Indonesia, the kings, or rajas seemed to construct collective identity around people’s pledges of allegiance to them.  In fact, the term ‘Malay’ is said to have first denoted a line of kingship descending from the empires of Srivijaya and Melaka (Andaya, 2001), making it much more class-based than race-based in it original formulation.  More subjectively, ‘Malay’ became a self-referent label for any person who became part of Malay-speaking trading networks, spoke and wrote the language, wore certain clothes and ate certain foods.  Thus, any cultural aspect to the ‘Malay’ category that may have existed was very accepting of ‘recruits’ of any background.  There was definite flexibility and openness in the concept.  Inhabitants of the Southeast Asian archipelago at the time did not envision themselves as members of a common race (Nah, 2006).  South Asian, Chinese, and even Portuguese and Dutch traders followed local labels in defining the people they encountered, as they were primarily interested in commerce, and not in spreading national values or ideas (Reid, 1997).
        The arrival of the British changed this situation.  Their coastal Straits Settlements were initially set up for control of strategic positions on trade routes to China (Hirschman, 1986), and attracted traders from throughout the region.  Around the middle of the nineteenth century, inland opportunities in tin and cash-crop agriculture fuelled further immigration (Hirschman, 1986).  By 1871, there were as many immigrants as non-immigrants in the Straits Settlements (Hua, 1983).  Due to British policies favouring plantation agriculture over peasant agriculture, such as tax breaks and choice of land, Malay peasants sought to join the British and Chinese in growing cash crops (Jomo, 1986).  However, an exploding (largely immigrant) population requiring the import of rice from Burma and Siam was draining Malaya of foreign exchange (Jomo, 1986).  British maintenance of the Malay social structure and their presence in the rice padis would: a) prevent ‘shifting cultivation’ that used potential plantation land, b) target the local market, not intruding on export plantations, and c) lessen the colony’s dependence on rice imports and its loss of foreign currency (Jomo, 1986).   However, in an economy where cash crops and labour were in high demand, Malay peasant attraction to those se

Leave a comment