In spite of the association through community being the root word of communalism, different communities living in a single state does not imply communalism1. Communalism is rather, a label attributed to a phenomenon in any state where the different communities, whether divided by language, ethnic grouping, religion, or any other factors, harbour a sense of being distant from each other and having this sense of being differentiated from the other communities override any national identity they have as a single nation.
Communalism could manifest itself in many forms. In the social sphere, the presence of communalism would mean that the different communities are very conscious of the differences between them. It may also include a sense of suspicion about the other communal groups and would usually preclude the establishment of a strong common identity. There may exist a sense of inequality among some if not all groups and there might be general dissatisfaction and inter-ethnic jealousies.
And since politics is the articulation of society’s demands and the meeting of those demands, communalism would also be seen in the political arena; Interests definition and articulation by the political parties would most likely be along ethnic lines and the policies implemented are also seen and perceived by the electorate largely in terms of benefits and alienation as regards to certain ethnic groups. Political parties would campaign on the backs of ethnic issues and voters would cooperatively vote along ethnic lines.
Allocation of seats within decision-making bodies of the government would have on the forefront of the list of consideration factors, the issue of ethnic background of the office holder. What is pertinent towards the issue of communalism being a problem is that in a multiracial state like Malaysia, the goal of maintaining a unified national identity, so essential to national security, is being seriously undermined by the presence of communalism. Mutual distrust and dissatisfaction is definitely not the ground to breed a sense of unity and cooperation that would give Malaysia the edge to compete in the international and globalising economy.
It is thus that a communalistic label is not one that any Malaysian politician wants to be labelled with. Communalism carries with it the association with such politically incorrect concepts such as intolerance, parochialism and most cardinally sinful of all, not being committed to the national interest. Yet despite the agreed view about the evils of communalism among the politicians, communalism is still deeply entrenched in Malaysia. Going along the defining characteristics of communalism outlined in the preceding paragraphs, Malaysia is definitely still a specimen of a society rife with communalism.
The dominant communities, which are represented by the different ethnic groupings of Malays, Chinese and Indians still view each other with suspicion and distrust. This could be seen in the recent clash in Kampung Medan, Petaling Jaya, Selangor in which six people were killed. The relevant point in this incident was that the government was very quick to point out that there were no communal grievances at stake2, indicating the extremely tenuous relations that ethnic groups in Malaysia have with each other.
They also continue to see themselves more as members of an ethnic community than as a part of the Malaysian nation3. The political parties in Malaysia also show the historical trend of being organised along the exact same communal cleavage of ethnic divide. The forces that precipitated communalism from even before Malaysia came into being and kept it alive ever since are varied and many. My organisation of them would be in such a way as to derive a relationship between the various factors and indicate how they interact with each other and create an effect of amplifying each other’s effect.
Particularly, I would attempt to show how these factors perpetuate a vicious cycle that feeds the roots of communalism and cause it extremely difficult for anyone to extricate Malaysia from communalism. In the Beginning, there was.. The seeds of communalism could be argued to have been sowed in the way the whims of fortune forged the Malaysian society. The Malays have been the dominant political power in the Malay Peninsula long before the Chinese or Indians came. The Sejarah Melayu let the Malays claim their presence in the peninsula to long before the 14th Century.
It was only with the coming of the British and their need of the large number of workers that large number of Chinese and Indians started to flood the Malaya peninsula. The Malays did not mind them much at first, partly due to the Malays tolerant and easy-going nature but mainly due to that fact that the Chinese and Indians were not really interested in political power4 at that time. However, when the Chinese and Indians began to settle5 in Malaysia, they began to demand more political power and this thus started the political bickering.
It is at this stage that the Malays begin to feel threatened and this sense of being threatened is the start of the process of communalism6. Some would be puzzled as to why the Malays felt threatened since they constitute a majority in the peninsula. This could be attributed to two factors. The first is that the Malays are in fact not the majority, for contrary to popular opinion, during the colonial times right up to the present, the Malays constitute only a simple majority and are outnumbered if all other non-Malays are considered7.
Mutalib describes this phenomenon, where the dominant group in a society does not hold a sizeable numerical superiority, as Bi-modalism8. Secondly, it is a fact that although the Malays hold the political power, the Chinese are overwhelmingly in control of the economic sphere even at that time9. The economic dominance of the Chinese has not changed much up till the present10 and thus the Malays are still fidgeting over the threat.
If the Malays were feeling threatened, the Chinese were by then feeling slighted that their political position does not reflect their economic contributions to the state. As more Chinese decided to settle in Malaysia, they begin to feel that the special position of the Malays in Malaya is no longer tolerable. There thus arose a situation where the Chinese and Malays11 are each looking at political economic differences that happen to be demarcated along ethnic lines. This parallel divide served as the first and foremost cause of communalism in Malaysian society and still relevant today.
This socio-economic divide also points towards the prevailing strategy of the Malays and Chinese towards fighting their communal political wars. The Malays generally want to use their political clout to correct their economic disadvantage where the Chinese on their side want to use their economic clout to ensure that they get their share of political power before their economic advantage has been eroded by the Malay’s political dominance. Another event that was instrumental in the ingraining of ethnic animosity between the races is the Japanese occupation of the Peninsula.
As a result of the policies of the Japanese, which favoured the Malays and the Indians at the expense of the Chinese, and the different response of the different ethnic groups towards the Japanese, ethnic tensions were intensified. The Japanese used the Malays and Indians to fight the Chinese guerrilla groups who were fighting against the Japanese. This in effect, created what Ratnam called a “communal war”12. The willingness of the Malays13 and Indians to cooperate with the Japanese led the Chinese to view them as traitors and collaborators.
The Malays and Indians however in their turn, came to view the Chinese as non-patriotic towards Malaysia during the period of the Emergency when the Chinese were reluctant to join the struggle against the Communist threat. Tunku Abdul Rahman, then a Malay Law student wrote to the Times in September. 1948, summing up concisely the Malay perception of the Chinese with the statement “Terrorism in Malaya is solely the work of the Chinese Communists and…… it could be easily crushed if the rest of the Chinese population would cooperate more fully with the authorities.