Revisiting Pluralism in Malaysia

Assoc Prof Goh Beng Lan (Southeast Asian Studies Programme, NUS)
Dr Maznah Mohamed (Visiting Senior Fellow, Department of Malay Studies, NUS)
Prof Cheah Boon Keng (Visiting Professor, Department of History, NUS)

Date: 9 – 10 July 2009
Venue: AS7 Shaw Foundation Building, #04-17

Recent political and social transformations in Malaysia point to the currency of the older concept of “plural society.” However, recent references to plurality suggest distinct changes in the understanding of this concept at both the state and below-the-state levels. Discourses emerging from official (state) and citizenry levels reveal simultaneous imaginations of ethno-religious differences as well as trans-ethnic identifications, common desires and expectations of inclusion, equal opportunity and treatment within the Malaysian nation-state.

The immediate catalyst for these renegotiated meanings of pluralism was the political “tsunami” of the March 2008 General Elections where, for the first time in Malaysian history, the ruling government (National Alliance) lost control of five states and merely held a simple two-thirds majority in parliamentary seats (winning 140 out of the 220 contested seats). Importantly, the electoral results led to the emergence of a non-ethnic based political opposition in the form of the Pakatan Rakyat which raised hopes for a viable alternative vision of a truly plural Malaysian nation whereby all ethno-religious groups are included in the national imaginary. The weakened political grip of the National Alliance government has intensified power and imaginative horizons about ethno-religious co-existence, citizenship, human, and religious rights in Malaysian political pluralism.

In the new millennium, efforts to empower Islamic institutions and Islam in public life on the one hand, and struggles to prevent the loss of religious and citizenship rights on the other, have come to dominate the landscape of Malaysian pluralism. Overarching interests to protect both religious and civic constituencies have led to the conjunction of a host of diverse groups representing a variety of cross-ethnic, religious and civic interests never before witnessed in the Malaysian political landscape. As these groups struggle to defend their interests, controversies over procedural justice from the country’s separate systems of syariah and civil laws on inter-religious family conflicts and differing interpretations of the existence and nature of a “social contract” between the Malays and non-Malays in early Malaysian history have erupted into the centre stage of plural politics. These quarrels have resulted in ideological deadlocks between Islamic and civic interpretations on how the contours of ethno-religious, civic and citizenship rights should be defined within a plural Malaysia.

Given these momentous shifts in ethno-religious politics at both the state and below-the-state levels, it is timely and appropriate to bring together experts working on Malaysia to help generate clearer, more coherent and integrated perspectives on the state-of-affairs of pluralism and political communities in Malaysian society.

This project aims to bring together scholars working on Malaysia in a two-day workshop to rethink these issues. Six thematic issues around the politics of pluralism are identified as areas of discussions in this conference. They are:

  • political economy;
  • social contract;
  • constitutionality;
  • newer state-society relations;
  • democracy, interfaith and human rights; and
  • citizenship versus communalism.

Download: Conference Details and Abstract