By Wong Chin Huat
16 July 2014
Traditionally, pluralism in Malaysia is advocated by the ethno-religious minorities and only tolerated by the majority.
For pluralism to survive and thrive, this pattern must change: the main task of defending pluralism must lie with the Malay-Muslims.
The disappearing minorities’ ‘veto power’
Minorities – non-Malays, non-Muslims and/or non-Bumiputeras – should accept this cruel reality that their defence for pluralism may not matter much for the future of a plural Malaysia.
In other words, they do not have any “veto power” even on changes that affect their socio-cultural life. In the early years, when the minorities put their feet down on matters concerning their communal autonomy or interests, the majority-dominated state used to take note and make compromises, to avoid an outright sense of alienation.
The erosion of minority rights was meant to be done gradually and “cosily” in a tango fashion: two steps forward, then one step back.
In Malaysia’s political lingo, slow changes through such encroachment-negotiation-retreat cycles are priced as “mutual respect”, “tolerance” and “power sharing”.
The minorities’ protection from the majority’s encroachment actually has two sources. The first is their rights formally guaranteed by the Federal Constitution. The second is the informal negotiation power through the security, electoral or economic threats they pose.
The unreliable constitutional guardians: Parliament and judiciary
The constitutional safeguards then hinges on two institutions: Parliament and the judiciary.
Amendment of the Federal Constitution through Parliament is meant to be difficult with a two-thirds threshold but this safeguard is more imagined that real.
When the ruling coalition enjoyed a two-thirds majority, and its parliamentarians voted like sheep, then anything could be possible.
In 1966, supported by all Bornean MPs, except eight from Sarawak National Party (SNAP) and Sarawak United Peoples’ Party (SUPP), Parliament abused its emergency power to amend the Sarawak constitution so that Sarawak’s defiant Chief Minister Stephen Kalong Ningkan could be replaced with someone subservient to Kuala Lumpur.
And if the ruling coalition loses its two-thirds majority, it may be restored with malapportionment and gerrymandering in constituency redelineation, which requires only a simple majority in the house for approval.
Worse, the Federal Constitution has loopholes, such as relieving itself from an inclusive decision requiring a super majority. One of them is Article 76A, which hardliners in Umno and PAS hope to use to unilaterally transfer part of the criminal justice power from Putrajaya to Kelantan, completely bypassing Sabah and Sarawak in their utter disregard for the Malaysian Agreement 1963.
Meanwhile, as a guardian of our Constitutional rights, the judiciary is only as good as per the calibre of judges. A case in point is the “Allah” ban, where the Catholic Church was denied even the leave from the Federal Court to challenge the Appellate Court’s judgment.
Much more problematic is the Court of Appeal judge Tan Sri Mohamed Apandi Ali’s attempt to misinterpret Article 3(1) which states that “Islam is the religion of the federation but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the federation” as the limit of our fundamental liberties.
Evoking the banner of “social contract”, he claimed that the intention of “in peace and harmony” in Article 3(1) was to “protect the sanctity of Islam” and to “insulate” it against any threat.
And how do you know if there is “peace and harmony”? That the Muslims are not angry. To justify the Allah ban, Apandi’s co-panelist, judge Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Abdul Rahim cited the arson attacks on churches and mosques in January 2010 after its overturning by the High Court on the last day of 2009.
If our courts are packed with judges like Apandi and Aziz, so what if all the top lawyers or even all constitutional experts in the world hold a different opinion on the secular nature of and fundamental rights in our Constitution?
What do you with judges who read laws the way they like, or a police chief who decides what court order to follow?
Over My Dead Body?
The late Karpal Singh was respected for his principled defence of secularism, underlined by his iconic quote: “an Islamic state over my dead body”.
Many secularists, pluralists and liberals would love to have more Karpal Singhs. But to really defend (or subvert) any political order with life, you need not one, tens or hundreds – but thousands or tens of thousands – of the committed.
Now, how many of those who cheer for Karpal dare to make the same pledge?
With the eruption of the Communist insurgency in 1948, the prospect of a full-scale inter-ethnic civil war was real for both the British and Umno elite if millions of Chinese remained disenfranchised.
That was why Umno had to agree reluctantly to a more liberal citizenship regime for the non-Malays even though it was still ideologically opposed to multiculturalism.
Neither the peninsula non-Malays nor the Borneans pose any security threat to Umno’s party state today.
After 1969, the peninsula non-Malays’ main coping mechanisms for Malay ultra-nationalism have been opposition-voting or migration.
While many non-Malays, especially Chinese, like to believe Malaysia will suffer economic catastrophe with continuing brain drain and capital flight, the likes of Ridhuan Tee would only welcome migration as the minorities’ “D-I-Y ethnic cleansing”.
And one must never mistake Malaysia’s new ultra-nationalists like Isma for Taliban or Boko Haram. They are not against economic development and all things foreign.
In fact, they reject the non-Malays only as insubordinate citizens, not as taxpayers. They may welcome new immigrants – even from mainland China – as long as these immigrants concentrate on making money and do not want any political right.
With her rich natural resources, Malaysia may actually flourish for a while with an influx of cheap foreign workers and foreign capital.
In Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain, foreign workers make up 40% to 80% of the population and keep their economy running but will never get citizenship to threaten the ruling class.
Electoral Decline of Minority Voters
The non-Malays used to be able to threaten the BN with protest votes up until 2008 but now more.
Then, BN set its electoral goal at a two-thirds majority and it had no choice but to please enough of the peninsula non-Malays, who made up a majority in some 25% of all parliamentary constituencies and a sizeable minority in some 15% other constituencies.
After 2013, a two-thirds majority is simply unrealistic a goal and Umno aims now minimally for a simple majority, or 112 seats if the Parliament does not get expanded.
In the 13th general election, Umno and its de facto proxy Perkasa in Pasir Mas won 27% of national votes in the peninsula and 73 seats out of 107 contested. In the peninsula alone, Umno was only 39 seats short of a simple majority.
With a tiny addition of 2.37% more national votes, Sabah and Labuan then contributed another 15 seats in a clean sweep for Umno, closing its gap from a simple majority to only 24 seats.
If the only other Muslim-dominant BN party, Sarawak’s Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB) is added in, which won 14 more seats with another 2.10% of national votes, the Muslim core of BN now has 102 seats – 10 seats short of a simple majority – with about 32% of votes.
In the peninsula, Umno could have taken eight more seats if it could win 2,000 more votes each.
This electoral demographic explains two important developments post-GE13.
First, Isma and Perkasa growing from strength to strength in the midst of controversies from the “Allah” ban to the Hudud proposal, so that Muslims can feel more under siege.
Second, the intense behind-the-scene lobbying of Pakatan Rakyat parties to support the expansion of Parliament, so that there can be more seats for under-siege Muslims.
What about the Borneans? Don’t they hold enough votes to keep Umno sensible?
Unfortunately, most Borneans have this wishful thinking that South China Sea is wide enough to save them from the Malayan disease of communalism. Hence, they seek only exemption for Sabah and Sarawak, rather than a solution for Malaysia.
This explains why Bornean politicians like Tan Sri James Masing can still appear as great heroes by only “taking the authorities to task” in Sarawak without changing anything for Borneans in the peninsula.
Selling pluralism to Malay-Muslims
I hope this article has by now convinced you that pluralism has no future if it depends on the defence by the ethno-religious minorities, who have no trump card as they once did.
Pluralism must be a majority’s cause to stand a chance to triumph.
And pluralism cannot be sold to the majority in universal and colour-blind lingos like equality, fairness, human rights or humanism.
Why? Multiculturalism, multiparty democracy and secularism are simply seen as illegitimate colonial legacies that only disadvantage the majority.
Pluralism can only be sold to Malay-Muslims instrumentally: pluralism will benefit Malay-Muslims.
But how will multiculturalism, democracy and secularism benefit Malay-Muslims?
The answer to this “marketing” question perhaps is the key which may liberate us from our 1946 prison. – July 16, 2014.
Wong Chin Huat earned his PhD from University of Essex with a thesis on electoral system and party system in West Malaysia. He is now a member of the multiculturalism research group at the Penang Institute