Home 2013: 7 Moving away from the consociational model in Malaysia?

Moving away from the consociational model in Malaysia?

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Malaysians should realise that the consociational model has broken down and all future challenges and solutions should come from Malaysians directly working with one another, says Greg Lopez.

Archbishop Emeritus Murphy Pakiam
Archbishop Emeritus Murphy Pakiam

It was reported that,

Archbishop Tan Sri Murphy Pakiam had sought the intervention of a Barisan Nasional member of parliament (emphasis mine) in Sabah while questioning an order from the Home Ministry to stop the distribution of the latest Herald publication in Sabah.

The same news report went on to note that,

Tuaran MP Datuk Wilfred Madius Tangau said in a Facebook posting today, that he had interceded (emphasis mine) with the Home Ministry on behalf of the Catholic Church (emphasis mine) to obtain approval for 2,000 copies of Herald to be released in Sabah. (28 October 2013, The Malaysian Insider).

It is interesting that Murphy Pakiam sought relief through a member of parliament (MP) from the ruling coalition that had caused this predicament.

Perhaps, the Archbishop was acting strategically by appealing to an MP from the indigenous Christian community in East Malaysia that is a powerful voting bloc in Malaysia’s electoral system. It may also be a manoeuvre to enable all or most East Malaysian MPs and MPs from the minority political parties on the peninsula within the ruling coalition to voice their disapproval with the Court of Appeals, government or the United Malays National Organisation’s (Umno) views on the ban.

However, I argue that Murphy Pakiam was merely acting within a repertoire of behaviour that he and possibly most of Malaysia’s political, cultural, religious and business elites have become accustomed to: to appeal to the ‘powers that be’ by seeking out ‘members of the ruling elite’ who would then – when congruent with their own interests – act as ‘intermediaries’ and ‘intercede’ on behalf of the aggrieved parties to the ‘powers-that-be’ – more often than not – the Umno president.

This behaviour has become the norm in Malaysia. [A survey of news would indicate that the Prime Minister of Malaysia/President of Umno is expected to resolve all issues in Malaysia.] This behaviour is one of the main reason why minority political parties remain within the ruling coalition despite seeing their position as useful intermediaries wither away. This behaviour has become their habit.

But why do Malaysian elites constantly appeal to members of the ruling elite to resolve their problems or challenges?

Consociational politics

One way to explain this is to explore the concept of consociational politics. Consociational politics is based on the idea that conflict resolution in divided societies is best achieved through the accommodation of the political elites representing the salient segments of society and institutionally anchored by inclusive coalitions. As noted by its formulator (the Dutch political scientist Arendt Lijphart), consociational democracy is a,

…government by elite cartel designed to turn a democracy with fragmented political culture into a stable democracy.

In other words, the consociational model assumes:

  • that there are deep differences among the salient segments in society (often coalescing around ethnicity, religion or regional groupings in Malaysia);
  • these differences are insurmountable;
  • that these salient segments are incapable of mediating these differences by themselves; and
  • that these segments are incapable of regulating their behaviour in the face of these intractable differences. This ultimately leads to violent or deadly outcomes. Hence, only the leaders of these salient segments – the elite cartel – can overcome these challenges. This is what leaders of the BN would have Malaysians believe.

The elite cartel are supposed to overcome these challenges – which ordinary citizens are unable to address – through four principles that are foundational to the consociational model.

The first principle, the grand coalition, is an executive that not only has the votes necessary in an election to secure a majority but includes all important salient segments (or as many as possible). It also entails distribution of leadership position to different groups in other types of institutions and involves informal elite cooperation.

The second principle is cultural or segmental autonomy which provides a degree of self-regulation for each salient segment (usually coalesced around ethnicity, religion or regional identities such as constitutional guarantees of the rights of minorities).

The third principle is proportionality where proportional representation in legislature/s but also other aspects of public life (such as appointments to positions in the bureaucracy and state-owned corporations).

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And the fourth and final principle is the minority or mutual veto, which enables representatives of each segmental group – even the weakest – to reject proposed policies of the grand coalition that affects the group.

This consociational model as practised by the BN (described as the social contract/power sharing/kongsi-kongsi) has all but broken down. [Pakatan Rakyat and its state governments offer variants of this consociational model. It has also been argued that since the consociation model no longer works, that its institutions no longer function. The point of this article is precisely the opposite; that since Malaysian elites have set behavioural patterns conditioned by the consociational model, this then (i) sets the parameters for thinking and actions for actors in the model; and (ii) it advantages the dominant group since it can veto the interests of the other minority groups without suffering the consequences (losing the main prize – the general elections).]

Although the institutions – primarily reflecting principles one to three – remain, the most important principle, the ability of the weakest social group in the grand coalition to veto policies or legislations that affects the group has all but dissipated. [Institutions here are the rules of the game in a society or more formally, are the humanly devised constraints that shape human interaction.

Hence the predicament of the minority groups in Malaysia, that although the majority of Malaysians (and the overwhelming majority of the Malaysian minorities i.e. the Chinese and Indians) rejected the ruling coalition at the 13th general election, the minority parties within the coalition but also elites from the business, cultural and religious organisations are still tied to these practices of elite politics that benefits primarily Umno, the dominant partner.

These practices have progressively failed to protect their legitimate and constitutionally guaranteed interests.

[It is important to note that these institutions not only suppress minority groups, but also differing views within the majority group. Hence Malays and Bumiputeras who are not part of the grand coalition are also marginalised. The dominant group in the ruling coalition, however, uses various mechanisms such as ideology and state bureaucracy, but most importantly the habits of Malaysians to continue to be the legitimate power.]

That the Catholic Archbishop had to meet the MP from Tuaran – and not seek other solutions – to seek relief only serves to reiterates this point.

How did it break down?

Many reasons have been put forward to explain the breakdown of consociational politics within the BN, but four are put into focus here. The first is Malaysia’s electoral process, secondly, the concentration of power in the Executive and in Umno specifically, thirdly – ‘creeping Islamisation’, and finally, the habits of (most) Malaysian political, social, cultural, religious and business elites.

The first three are well rehearsed.

First, there is no longer a grand coalition but a dominant party with minions in the ruling coalition. Consociationalism works when there are incentives for powerful and weak social groups to cooperate. The most important incentive is to pool votes at elections to form government.

However, systematic gerrymandering and malapportionment has steadily amplified an already biased electoral system that favours rural areas against urban areas and the states of Sabah and Sarawak over Peninsular Malaysia.

In the past, Umno, the dominant party in the coalition needed the support of the minority groups to form government which is an important feature of the consociational model. However, at the thirteenth general elections, Umno decided (and was later surprisingly vindicated) that it did not need to pool its votes with other important minority groups within its coalition on the peninsula to form the government. It relied primarily on the Malay votes, and votes from East Malaysia.

Umno now knows that it does not need the support of the minority communities (Chinese and Indian Malaysians) as they are predominantly situated in urban areas, and in Peninsular Malaysia. Hence the accepted logic in the consociational model, that the electoral process will moderate the behaviour of a political party (especially that of the dominant party), no longer holds.

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The second reason for the breakdown of the consociational model is the concentration of power in the Executive arm of government and in MPs from Umno. Although Malaysia follows the Westminster system, strengthened with a written constitution that embeds the separation of powers, and an independent judiciary to ensure the rule of law, it very quickly unravelled for a variety of reasons.

Although a consociational democracy accepts a diminished form of parliamentary democracy for political and social stability, the extent to which Malaysia has deviated even from its initial state has resulted in Malaysia being defined as a semi-authoritarian regime.

Furthermore, the concentration of power in government within a particular racial group compounded by the fact that the dominant party which purports to represent this racial group no longer requires the support of other minorities at elections voids the second and third principles of cultural or segmental autonomy and proportionality in the consociational model.

Gradual breakdown over time

However, it would be wrong to conclude that the breakdown of consociationalism is a recent development. While Umno paid lip service to the idea of consociationalism, it was steadily eroding the second, third and fourth principles of the model especially since May 13, 1969. This was the outcome of its own growing strength both in the executive (which Umno MPs dominate) and in the economic sphere which made Umno the most formidable political party in Malaysia.

The New Economic Policy (NEP) sealed Malay dominance in the economic sphere while accelerating the dominance of Malays in all aspects of administration.

Simultaneously, in its attempt to undercut support for other groups vying for the majority vote bank, Umno co-opted Islam, and made it the most significant marker of Malaysian Muslims.

‘Creeping Islamisation’ defined as the strengthened influence and the consolidation of Islam’s political power in state and society is one of the outcomes of this strategy. This provided and continues to provide perverse incentives that undermine the consociational model.

These factors are at play in the Court of Appeals decision in the ‘Allah’ case. With memories of several high profile court cases in recent times going against the supremacy of the constitution and the secular nature of the state in favour of the primacy of Islam, was it then surprising that three Muslim judges would rule in the way they did in the Court of Appeals on the ‘Allah’ issue.

[These cases (Lina Joy, Tongiah Jumali, Subashini, Shamala, ‘Everest’ Moorthy, Rayappan Anthony, Revathi/Siti Fatimah, Banggarma, etc.) arbitrated by Muslim judges have given rise to concerns that the judiciary may not be independent attitudinally when it comes to matters pertaining to Islam. These concerns are reflected in comments from prominent members of the legal fraternity such asParam Cumara-swamy, a former UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, as well as former Federal Court judge Gopal Sri Ram that the Malaysian judiciary is not protecting the rights of ethnic minorities.]

The actions of Umno, conservative Muslims in administrative positions and conservative Muslim groups should not be surprising, for they have developed a repertoire of behaviour that responds to incentives provided by the institutions in Malaysia.

Minority elites stuck in old practices

But what is surprising is that minorities – especially its elites – continue to resort to these institutions to resolve problems despite increasingly regressive outcomes. It must be noted that the primacy of Malay interests – as defined by their elites – over the interests of other ethnic groups was not done at gunpoint, but rather through the consent of the majority that included minority groups.

The case of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) provides a useful illustration. The problems of ‘creeping Islamisation’ is not new but began in earnest in the late 1970s.

The MCCBCHST have met ‘members of the ruling elite’, especially non-Muslim MPs and more specifically Christians MPs from the ruling coalition since the late 1980s in the hope that they would ‘intercede’ for them. The MCCBCHST has also met and continued to meet successive Prime Ministers in the hope of resolving issues, policies and administrative acts by the government, its agencies and its core supporters that undermined the fundamental constitutional guarantees for minority groups within this consociational model. Despite promises made by successive prime ministers, minority rights continue to be trampled on.

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But at no time did this behaviour and practice stop. This is because the religious elites are tied to these practises of consociational politics too. The practices remain stable because it has ordered the thought, expectations, and actions of the elite actors within this system.

Moving away from elite politics post-GE13

The outcome of Malaysia’s thirteenth general elections (GE13) and developments since are both a cause for concern and hope. A cause for hope because for the first time in Malaysian history, the majority want change. A cause for concern because the will of the people are not reflected in the ruling coalition that became the elected government. This indicates in the most emphatic manner that the system is broken.

The ruling coalition has chosen to continue to emphasise the underlying assumptions of the consociational model by making the differences among Malaysians insurmountable, and that they alone can resolve these issues within their terms.

Malaysians can change this if they stop relying on the political, business, cultural and religious elites to resolve issues. This rejection of elite politics will in turn change current institutions.

Developments since Reformasi in 1998/99 suggests that the behaviour of Malaysians are slowly beginning to change away from elite politics. There are now many social movements (Bersih, Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia, Solidariti Anak Muda Malaysia and Black505) that are led by ordinary Malaysians which are not focused on ethnicity or religion.

But most importantly, despite the BN’s provocations, Malaysians have demonstrated time and again, their ability to practise restraint; undermining the key assumption that justifies the consociational model – that the intractable nature of these differences will lead to bloody outcomes. Moreover, ordinary Malaysians, in leading these social movements, are beginning to demonstrate that they are capable of managing their own destiny.

The key to developing a new repertoire of behaviour and new practices is essentially to overturn the assumptions of the consociational model: that the differences among the salient groups in Malaysia are not insurmountable; that members of the salient groups are capable of managing these differences themselves without assistance from the elites; and that members of the salient groups are capable of regulating their behaviour should some of these differences become intractable.

One avenue to immediately implement this idea is on the ‘Allah’ issue. Malaysians should reject any further engagement with the dominant group represented by the BN government, Umno or their proxies on the ‘Allah’ issue as it is now clearly pointless.

Engaging one another directly

Instead Malaysians should take two inter-related actions: continue through the constitutionally provided process of the court systems and engage one-another directly.

Malaysian from the peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak should engage directly with one another to discuss these issues, and to find ways to resolve them. Malaysian Christians from Sabah and Sarawak can share their history of using the word ‘Allah’ with Malaysians on the peninsula. Muslims from Sabah and Sarawak can share their experience of how Malaysian Christians have used the term ‘Allah’ without causing any social unrest. Muslims opposed to the use of ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims can share their concerns to non-Muslims on the reasons that they oppose them.

This is not inter-faith dialogue but Malaysians finding democratic solutions through constitutionally provided avenues to resolve their differences, to get on with their lives, and build new repertoires of behaviour and practices to resolve more fundamental and pressing issues.

Malaysians should realise that the consociational model has broken down. It clearly no longer serve the interests of minority groups and is used to inhibit Malaysians from addressing more pressing and fundamental challenges that the country faces. All future challenges and its solutions should come from Malaysians directly working with each other, together.

Dr Gregore Pio Lopez is New Mandala’s Malaysia and Singapore section editor and visiting fellow at the Department of Political and Social Change, in the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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