Paul Lim compares the decentralised federal system in Belgium with Malaysia’s heavily centralised federation.
I used to live and teach in Malaysia; now I am back in my adopted country of Belgium after retirement.
I try to keep in touch with what is happening in Malaysia but I am bombarded by international news, which I also try to follow. I think I have an internationalist mindset, not stuck to a narrow nationalist mindset. I have been contemplating writing this article since returning here to Belgium this year but finally got down to it on a gloomy Christmas Day.
State and religion
Belgium and Malaysia are both kingdoms. Belgium is described here as a federal state and may well next be a co-federal/co-federation state, while Malaysia is better known as a federation. Whether federal or federation, Belgium is a decentralised state down to the local level in the spirit and practice of federalism while people in Malaysia are still calling for city council elections.
Malaysia is a highly centralised state even if it calls itself a federation. The federal government’s attitude towards Sarawak and Sabah is that of a unitary state that fears secession or separation.
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In other words, there is decentralised power of decision-making and influence in federal Belgium but concentration of power and influence in the federation of Malaysia, centred in Kuala Lumpur, behaving as a unitary state. When will Malaysia become truly a federation? Never?
Belgium is a secular state, and I believe Malaysia is a secular state by its constitution. Historically, Belgium was a Catholic country but today it is a secular state. No more living in the Middle Ages.
However, Christianity (Catholics, 57.1% of the population, and Protestants, 5.1%) is recognised officially along with Islam (6.8%), Judaism (0.3%) and even what is called Laicité (which is difficult to translate), referring to those who do not espouse any religion but are humanists. Being an atheist is not a problem.
All the bodies of these religions are given subsidies by the state, and wages and salaries are paid to religious teachers and ministers of all religions. I cannot think of any Muslim country that pays the salary or wage of a priest or pastor of Catholic or Protestant minorities. As there is a Buddhist community in Belgium, when will the religion be recognised by the Belgian state? In this context, we cannot say that Catholicism is the state religion of Belgium. In Malaysia, Islam is the official religion and no other.
Freedom of religion facilitates religions positively, but it also means the freedom to opt out of any religion. Freedom of religion works both ways, and what we see in Belgium is the equality of all religions.
Videos by the extreme right wing here have been circulating, even in Malaysia, of Belgium becoming “Belgistan”, ie that Belgium will one day become a Muslim country because of the growing population of Muslims. This is happening in the context of Islamophobia, IS and extremist terrorism, which is not giving Islam a good image. There is no doubt of the security attention to Muslims in this context as there is attention in Malaysia. One consequence is the controversy over the non-use of the hijab here in official institutions although one sees hijab-wearing women on the streets of Belgium. I have not seen any of them being harassed on the streets though.
However, we see in Eastern Europe the resurgence of the dominant Christian nation-state, which lends legitimacy to the dominant Muslim nation-state, even if it is not established by force. Or is it the other around – the Muslim state giving legitimacy to the Christian state?
Monolingualism or multilingualism?
There are three official languages in Belgium: Flemish (Dutch in the Netherlands), French and German. They are all national languages of equal status and used as media of instruction. Flemish in Flanders, French in Wallonia, Flemish and French in Brussels, and German in the German cantons of Belgium. So, they are used, spoken and written in geographically separated parts of the country. Again, treated equally.
French was the official language of Belgium, but that is no longer the case, with the present equal treatment of languages. The majority Flemish have not imposed their language as the only official national language of the country.
What’s more, as students are obliged to speak more than one language, English is increasingly becoming the second or third language learned and spoken. There is a recognition of English for business and for the economy as multinational companies and international institutions are set up in Belgium. No one language is the language of unity for the country.
But it wasn’t always like that. The French language was the only official language of the unitary state when Belgium was founded in 1830, while Flemish, the language of the majority Flemish people, was not officially recognised. Since the 1830s, a Flemish struggle for their language and culture ensued, and they as a people eventually made it that Flemish became an official language in 1898.
Belgium, in fact, has more than three languages with a number of ethnic groups coming to live and work here without any constraints on speaking their own languages. There are still people who are monolingual, yet they are not forced to become multilingual. Of course, to find work, it is necessary to speak at least two languages, but it is not uncommon to find people, the young especially, who speak three languages because the school system provides for this.
What do we see in Malaysia? It is all right that Malay is the national language based upon the traditional inherited concept of the unitary nation-state while most states today, even in the West, are multi-ethnic or multi-national states in reality. There should not be this dispute over Mandarin and Tamil education nor even education in other minority languages. If the Ibans want to be taught in Iban, they should be allowed to.
We must enjoy diversity instead of trying to make everyone conform to only Malay or Chinese or Tamil education. There should rather be a multilingual policy with great emphasis on English, which will remain the lingua franca the world over – even if today there is this encouragement to learn Mandarin, the language of the biggest population in the world, as China becomes a world power both economically and politically. (Mandarin is not an international language but a global language.)
Even in continental Europe, where there are many languages, English is increasingly the common language for all to meet, to the point that an Englishman may say his language is no more his own. Freedom for languages and a multilingual policy should be the norm in Malaysia. The future of young people lies in languages, especially for employment, in our interconnected world.
Race, politics, governance
Malaysia has a history of racial politics going back to the days of colonialism and post-World War Two colonialism.
What about Belgium? The culmination of the Flemish struggle, mentioned previously, led to the beginning of state reforms starting in 1970, and Belgium became a federal state in 1993. There is a Flemish movement and political parties that aim at independence, but there is also talk of a co-federal state with further decentralised reforms.
In the context of a federal state, the respective geographical regions and language communities have their own governments, parliaments and local administrations down to the grassroots. The same political colours are in these institutional arrangements inherited from the period of the unitary state, and often they are in coalitions of one kind or another.
At the federal level, the same political colours from both sides of the country are in coalitions as a rule. There has not been a Flemish majority insisting on their dominance in politics although often they do lead the federal government. Since the September 2019 elections, there has not been a federal government but a caretaker government in place from the previous administration not led by the Flemish side, which has not really annoyed the general population, while government administration continues to function. In this institutional set-up, there is no racial politics as in Malaysia. Belgium has multilevel decentralised governance underlined by equality. This institutional set-up has much to do with its form of proportional representation. Voting in Belgium is compulsory.
However, not to be forgotten is the small community of 70,000-odd German speakers living in their cantons in the east of the country in Wallonia. This is an 854 sq km area that was annexed to Belgium in 1920 after the end of World War One with the Treaty of Versailles. The area went back to Germany during World War Two and returned to Belgium after the war. Despite its small area, the people here have their own language recognised officially and their own government and parliament. This is an example of equality in treatment and status. Being small does not mean you cannot sit as an equal with your bigger neighbours.
In Malaysia, politics is based on ethnicity but one with the majority Malay population in dominance as the nation came into its own with independence across political colours and the political divide. But where is equality and where is the protection of minorities, a basic principle of democracy? Equal treatment is the route to peace and peaceful coexistence.
Why do Malays still fear the smaller Chinese population, as some say? Or is it the rich Malay elites who fear losing power, losing their gains and perks? Where do the minority Indians stand in this racial politics of Malaysia? Malaysians know the answer.
Malaysia should move from a Westminster model of democracy to proportional representation (which allows all opinions to be represented), decentralise power and promote more equality. This will be difficult for Malay political dominance as well as for the major non-Malay political parties. They want power and to keep power, which is the antithesis of democracy. We see rather a centralised concentration of power being played out even with a Pakatan Harapan government. Its continuing attitude to local government elections bears testimony to this.
In Malaysia, people of different ethnic backgrounds still meet each other in close proximity like at work (although there are neighbourhoods which are dominated by one ethnic group, which does not facilitate cohesion or promote unity). An official and national language does not necessarily bring about unity. Daily interaction between the different ethnic groups is the way out. Celebrating each other’s festivals has been the showpiece, but this is insufficient – it should be happening every day.
In Belgium, the different communities live in different geographical locations. It is thus harder to have that level of social intercourse as in Malaysia. For instance, I live in a rural town in Wallonia where I hardly meet a Flemish or a Flemish who has become a Walloon, so to speak, after having spent his life in Wallonia. Yes, they do meet in Brussels, where the majority are French speakers. (Even though Brussels lies in Flemish territory, it has a Flemish minority.) But the majority of the Flemish or Walloons will only meet their own kind in their respective territories.
Observing this, Malaysia has the advantage in building cohesion and unity among its people since the chances of the various communities coming together are greater than in Belgium. But for this to happen, racial politics has to end in Malaysia. Malaysia is in a better position to promote unity in diversity rather than racial politics, if not strife. The nation should draw back from racial politics and be truly an example of unity in diversity.
Evolving stakes in economy
While the United Kingdom – or rather, England – was the first to industrialise, Belgium was the first country on the European continent to industrialise – and this was with Wallonia and its coal and steel and even then in two main regions, Liège and Charleroi, which eventually declined in the late 1960s and 1970s. There is still a limited steel industry. Agriculture was the main economic activity in Flanders in those days, and this saw the migration of the Flemish to find work in Wallonia. Back then, Wallonia led the Belgian economy.
This situation has reversed. Flanders came into the economic map of Belgium from the 1970s onwards. In the 1980s and 1990s many multinational companies established themselves in Flanders – not that Wallonia did not draw in multinational investments; it did but to a lesser extent.
Today, Flanders leads the Belgian economy, but there is also both economic competition and cooperation with Wallonia. Both have their economic representations in Belgian embassies abroad, for example. The private sectors of both regions lead the way. It is stated that Flanders now finances Wallonia. Could it be said that it was the opposite in the past?
Coming back to Malaysia, during colonial times, the British dominated the economy. This was also the period of the beginning and rise of Chinese economic activities. In post-independent Malaysia, there has been Chinese domination of the economy.
These days, it is clear that the Chinese cannot dominate the Malaysian economy, but the talk is as if there has not been an evolution. Malay domination of the economy is developing, particularly through state institutions and state-related corporations. Private sector Malay entrepreneurship in the economy is also rising. The Malay private sector may not yet be a match for the Chinese private sector, but the situation is not stagnant or static.
How to support sustainable Malay entrepreneurship without concentration in a few hands? Which Malays have benefited, how have they got there to become top businessmen is a question. The rise of the Malay middle-class is good, but the larger Malay community remain relatively poor and disadvantaged. How can they be helped?
Learn from other countries
This is a broad and superficial sweep of the similarities and dissimilarities of Belgium and Malaysia, but it does reveal some things. I have much more to discover in my adopted country of Belgium. Malaysians, for their part, can learn more from Belgium’s diplomats in Malaysia.
In writing this article, I hope to open the eyes of Malaysians to other realities, here in Belgium. We should not be too preoccupied with our own country. We must look at other countries’ experiences, how they solve their issues of ethnicity, religion and politics and learn from them.
We cannot insist all the time that we are different, our situation is different. Every country is different for sure, but the attitude should be to learn from the experiences of others, and for this purpose, languages are important. Keeping people monolingual will not open their minds but keep them in narrow confines.
I have not touched on the environment and the ecology; my impression is that it does not really figure in politics. Consciousness of what is happening to the environment is limited. Less still is consciousness of what happened at COP25, the recent UN climate talks in Madrid. Were there climate change demonstrations in Malaysia?
Dr Paul Lim was a professor and visiting professor in European studies at two Malaysian universities. He also served as acting deputy director of the European Institute for Asian Studies in Brussels.