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Relativism and the politics of absolutes

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Sooner rather than later, all politicians who claim to be representative – rather than authoritarian – will have to accept the fact that not all communities live and believe as their own, and that dealing with difference is part and parcel of modern constitutional politics today, observes Farish Noor.

Studying Malaysian politics is a chore in itself, but rewarding for the simple reason that it is one of the most plural, complex and complicated countries in the world. Among all the countries that I have worked on, it is Malaysia that continues to challenge my capacity to think (and relax) for the simple reason that its communitarian mode of sectarian politics is an odd blend of modernity and primordialism that is seldom equalled anywhere else.

At present the opposition coalition known as the Peoples Alliance (Pakatan Rakyat) is once again in a state a crisis – or rather manifold crises – as the component parties bicker over the mode of governance in the states that they won after the elections of March 2008. Bringing together the predominantly Chinese-Malaysian left-leaning DAP, the multiracial PKR and the overwhelmingly Malay-Muslim Islamists of Pas was never an easy task; and it was said from the outset that the coalition was an instrumental one.
Today, however, the coalition is once again at breaking point after the DAP threatened to leave the coalition over a dispute over the destruction of a pig abattoir in Kedah, disputes over contracts awarded for development projects in Penang and Selangor, and the lingering fear that the Islamists of Pas will push their Islamisation agenda in the states that have come under their control. Seemingly trivial matters such as the sale of pork and alcohol have forced all three parties to be on the defensive, with each party holding steadfast to its stand.

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Now for political scientists such as myself, situations such as these – which are by no means unique to Malaysia – are worthy of further study as they raise the question of how a mode of representative politics can be developed and institutionalised in the context of plural societies with ethnic, religious and linguistic differences enshrined in the constitution as well as in the institutions of state. For this reason what happens in Malaysia is of interest to others in countries like India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Singapore, South Africa et al.

The root of the problem seems to be this: despite the introduction and imposition of modern tools of statecraft such as the Parliament, the Constitution, and the Judiciary, the operative mode of politics in Malaysia – like in many other post-colonial societies – is anything but modern. Feudal, essentialist and primordial loyalties to race, religion and culture predominate and determine the norms of political praxis and are still being used by all political parties to maintain the support of their respective sectarian constituencies. Hence the Islamist party’s preponderance to defend and foreground causes deemed relevant to Muslims; while other ethnic-based parties continue to foreground the interests of their respective ethnic communities.

Despite decades of rhetoric about building a united plural Malaysia, none of the political parties and political elite of Malaysia has done much in bridging the cultural, religious and ethno-linguistic gulfs between them. Hence the predominance of a mode of absolutist politics where no single party or leader can even begin to accept the idea of genuine difference and alterity in their midst.

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It is for this reason that trivial matters like the sale of pork and alcohol have become so contentious in states like Selangor and why even the simplest of things like linguistic differences can make or break the fragile coalitions we see in the country.

The question that has to be raised is this: how long will it take for the leaders of Malaysia’s political parties to realise that difference and alterity are living realities in a complex world, and that successful politics arises when parties can accept these differences and transcend them? At present, it is clear that some of the parties in the country have yet to learn the lesson. The Islamists of Selangor, for instance, are still bent on pursuing their mode of religiously-inspired politics with all its attendant dangers of moral policing. While all the parties of the country talk on and on about the much-lauded image of Malaysia being a diverse and plural nation, we see little respect for pluralism on the ground level. Religious minorities such as the Shias and Ahmadis are routinely described as deviants and deprived of their status as Muslims, moral policing is still the norm; and now even the sale of pork for non-Muslims has become an issue.

What holds true for the conservatives among the Islamists also holds true for the representatives and leaders of other parties as well, and as long as this situation pertains then there can be little hope for a genuinely plural and democratic politics in Malaysia.

Plural societies on the other hand are not the best place to play out a politics of absolutism, with its maximalist ambitions. In so many developing countries today, the hope of creating a singular national vision with a singular narrative has been eclipsed by the very real fact that these societies are too complex to be simplified and essentialised. There can be no singular image or identity to Malaysian society today any more than there can be a singular Indian, Pakistani, Indonesian or even American nation, for the simple reason that the processes of social differentiation have grown so far advanced that the appeal of a singular unifying narrative is lost.

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So perhaps a healthy dose of relativism – tempered by the awareness that relativism per se cannot be a licence for all sorts of cultural particularism of the Taliban variety – is required to get us out of the present impasse that stands before most plural societies. In the Malaysian context this may be more difficult for those political parties that use religion as the basis of their ideology, and who think of themselves as God’s politicians on earth who are here to gain control over the Parliament of Heaven. But sooner than later, all politicians who claim to be representative – rather than authoritarian – will have to accept the fact that not all communities live and believe as their own, and that dealing with difference is part and parcel of modern constitutional politics today.

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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