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The four faces of 1Malaysia


(Mooncake image by Mingwei / Dreamstime)

DEPENDING on how you look at it, this article on national independence is either two weeks too late or 50 weeks too early.

The two weeks after Malaysia Day on 16 Sept 2009, coupled with the Hari Raya mood, seemed peaceful and even boring by Malaysian standards. That is, except for Selangor religious exco and PAS commissioner Datuk Dr Hasan Ali‘s unusual attack on the state’s Select Committee on Competency, Accountability and Transparency, and PAS Youth chief Nasrudin Hassan’s standard attack on concerts.

While most Malaysians are either calendar-, crisis- or event-driven, I ask your permission to indulge in some reflections on our nationhood. Amid Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s plan to build “1Malaysia hostels” to promote national unity, I feel compelled to point out we cannot have “unity” because Malaysia consists of not two, or three, but four classes. And these four classes will not go away unless the current political order — which is a combination of ethnocracy and a one-party state — goes away.

So, unless the Barisan Nasional (BN) is willing to reform its political base, there will be 4Malaysias out there no matter how many 1Malaysia hostels, F1 teams, songs, dances, lanterns or mooncakes we construct.

Unlike the rigid ancient Hindu four-caste system, our four-class system is a flexible one. It fluctuates between two tracks with two different hierarchies.

The ethnoreligious hierarchy

The first track is on Malay- or Islam-related issues, where the hierarchy is

1. BN-aligned Malay-Muslim Malaysians;

2. Pakatan Rakyat (PR)-aligned Malay-Muslim Malaysians;

3. BN-aligned non-Malay, non-Muslim Malaysians;

4. PR-aligned non-Malay, non-Muslim Malaysians.

That is the “ethnocracy” side of Umno-BN’s dominance which dictates identity politics.  In practice, it is often conveniently collapsed into the dichotomy of bumiputera/Malay/Muslim Malaysians and the “nons”, by both proponents and opponents.

The simplified dichotomy explains why many Umno and PAS leaders like to talk about Malay/Muslim unity, why the keris needs to be raised from time to time, and a cow head needed to be stomped on. It is why public forums on the constitution needed to be threatened with violence, and why churches needed to be surrounded or trespassed to stop or investigate alleged mass apostasy plots.

To this end, a Malay Malaysian leader needs to be labelled a traitor of the race or religion for advocating race-blind public policy, or for giving land to the non-Malay Malaysian poor, or for safeguarding the right of religious minorities to have their own places of worship.

The non-ethnoreligious hierarchy

The obsession with the ethnoreligious divide results in many Malaysians forgetting that Malay-Muslim Malaysians are often discriminated against, too. That is the “one-party” side of Umno/BN’s dominance. In situations where ethnoreligious issues are not evoked, the second 4Malaysia hierarchy kicks in:

1. BN-aligned Malay-Muslim Malaysians;

2. BN-aligned non-Malay, non-Muslim Malaysians;

3. PR-aligned Malay-Muslim Malaysians;

4. PR-aligned non-Malay, non-Muslim Malaysians.

To be more specific, the BN-aligned Malay-Muslim Malaysians are not equal among themselves. After all, siding with the right faction is what will give an individual a larger share of economic perks. Such inequality is, of course, also found in other BN component parties. This explains why Umno, MCA, MIC and other BN component parties need to have periodic civil wars to determine who shall get the lion’s share within the one-party regime.

The greater evil

Neither of these hierarchies is right, but where do we go from here to attain an egalitarian nationhood? How do we prioritise which hierarchy to abolish first?

Both hierarchies contain discrimination on ethnoreligious and partisan bases, just in different orders. The question we really need to ask is, which is the greater evil — ethnoreligious discrimination or partisan discrimination?

For many Malaysians, especially the “liberal-minded” and the non-Malay non-Muslims, the BN’s biggest sin is the communal divides it creates. But let’s just say the one-party state manages to be inclusive. By this logic, those citizens who join the opposition should not complain about being discriminated against.

In fact, the entire idea of Najib’s 1Malaysia aims to persuade the third- and fourth-class citizens that their grievances are being addressed so that they continue supporting BN rule. Behind this logic is a simple worldview — singularity is good and, by derivation, political competition is inherently bad. Or rather, political competition is bad if and when a “good” singularity is achieved.

The origin of Umno’s racism

For me, Umno is not a truly racist party. Datuk Seri Hishamuddin Hussein, Khairy Jamaluddin, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yasin or even Datuk Ahmad Ismail — these are not real racists. I am sure that they have good non-Malay, non-Muslim Malaysian friends. But like most other politicians, they are purely opportunists.

They advocate for exclusive rights for Malay and Muslim Malaysians because that is the only way to justify Umno’s claim to monopolise political representation of Malay Malaysians. And their exclusive claim as Malay-Muslim champions is driven by none other than the perks — legal and illegal — provided by the one-party state.

In other words, as long as opposition members can be discriminated against, it pays for these Umno leaders to glorify political unity and construct political monopoly. And often, it is convenient and even effective to use slogans like Malay or Muslim unity. This means some ethnoreligious boundaries, and by derivation, ethnoreligious discrimination needs to exist to perpetuate such one-party dominance.

And thus, there cannot be a truly egalitarian “1Malaysia” unless it is accompanied by full democratisation.

Democracy and ∞Malaysia


So what will happen if Malaysians fight for interparty equality to ensure no citizen is discriminated against because of peaceful political beliefs? Would it mean that we will start seeing ethnoreligious equality?

No. Most democracies, from the US to India, debate over equality all the time. There will never be a consensus. This is a cruel reality that Malaysians against racism should now learn to avoid disappointment after democratisation. Some ethnoreligious discriminations are here to stay even under the PR. 

Societies take time to become more equal. Social equality therefore can and should wait. But democracy — or political equality in this sense — must not.

One might ask: what good is democracy if I will still be treated like some second-class citizen? The answer: in a democracy, you can complain about being treated as a second-class citizen. You can also hope that your complaint can influence the minds of enough citizens to warrant a change. No one — not the government or non-governmental organisations or angry individuals — can threaten violence to make you shut up.

With democracy, we will be further from 1Malaysia because everyone might have a different voice. It will be an Infinite Malaysia, or ∞Malaysia. Isn’t that better than the 4Malaysias we have now?


A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat believes that like economic monopoly, political authoritarianism is a social ill. It should be checked by altering the payoffs to the actors.

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17 Responses to “The four faces of 1Malaysia”

  1. Azmi says:

    A resounding yes to infinite Malaysia. As you say, equality might take time, but democracy where we can voice our views without the threat of violence is an immediate achievable goal.

  2. Andrew I says:

    Man, you’re deep. (That’s a compliment, by the way)

    Najib should have hired you as his political aide instead. There would certainly be less doubt surrounding his visions and ideals.

    I agree with you on the not truly racists part. Have a gander at the Forbes listing.

    Misdirection of David Copperfield proportions.

  3. pakkarim says:

    “No. Most democracies, from the US to India, debate over equality all the time. There will never be a consensus.”

    There was once a civilization whose leadership harnessed the full capabilities of a very diverse population – that included Christian, Islamic, and Jewish traditions.

    This kind of enlightened leadership — leadership that nurtured culture, sustainability, diversity and courage — led to 800 years of invention and prosperity.

    To know more please visit http://www.hp.com/hpinfo/execteam/speeches/fiorina/minnesota01.html or view Islam, Empire of Faith at Youtube or Google Video.

    Thank you.

  4. WTF says:

    I wonder why the author keeps on harping and highlighting Malaysia based on race and religion … perhaps [...] the author is [unconciously racist].

  5. 2nd class says:

    In my opinion, there is no such thing of racism in Malaysia like in the past South Africa. Otherwise, how to explain that most of the rich people on the list of richest Malaysians are non-Malay [Malaysians] like Ananda Krishnan, Vincent Tan etc. How to explain that most of the non-Malay [Malaysians] are still able to ‘cari makan’ and have foundation to excel overseas? Racism in the true sense would not allow this to happen. What happens in Malaysia is corruption in the guise of racism. Racism is used as a defense against any attempt to investigate and eradicate corruption. All Malaysians must be able to fight for their better future and Malaysia without arguing from the point of race.

  6. Alan Tan says:

    For a country that takes pride in shouting at the top of its lungs, the injustices it percieves in others’ governments, I find it ironic that we are among the last bastions of race-based politics and apartheid.

    It isn’t so much about a voice or about a level playing field. It’s about the fact that a government who steals from Peter to pay Paul can always count on the support of Paul … to paraphrase a famous American playwright, George Bernard Shaw.

    I think this will end when Malaysian tyrants and dictators find that bumiputera rights and Umno-putera rights can no longer be funded or subsidised. Then … and then only will reverse discrimination happen and I look forward to that day. It’s the same the world over. Why worry.

  7. Brilliant. Only with full democracy, different voices can be heard and treated with respect, and we can even have a Parlimentary hearing on discrimination issues air publicly.

  8. crap says:

    TNG’s democracy won’t allow comments to be published especially when you talk about some of the authors here being so racist in harping and sensationalizing race and religion issues for their simple-minded propaganda.

    Editor’s note: We encourage you to pin-point exactly what points you find racist or sensationalist without using abusive language or resorting to personal attacks. We will publish comments according to these guidelines, including those that take TNG to task for our reporting. If you find that there are overall problems with TNG, we welcome a letter to the editor – quoting facts and evidence – taking us to task, and we will publish it. But yes, we definitely edit abusive language and personal attacks :-)

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  9. Anonymous Coward says:

    ∞Malaysia… what a beautiful dream. That of a time when a multitude of voices can be heard without fear of reprimand.

  10. Sonia says:

    The author seems to have forgotten that there are Muslim non-Malay Malaysians.

  11. Sonia says:

    The author seems to have forgotten that there are non-Malay Muslim Malaysians.

  12. chinhuatw says:

    @WTF: “Why does the author keeps on harping and highlighting Malaysia based on race and religion?”

    Because he studies ethnic politics (from the rational choice perspective).

    Would you call a doctor who talks about diseases sick? Your choice really.

  13. chinhuatw says:

    @Sonia, you are right that a more precise categorisation would have to differentiate the ethnic group (Malays) and the faith community (Muslims).

    In common usage (or at least as I understand it), Malay-Muslims refers to people who are either Malays (by definition Muslims) or Muslims (who may not be Malays). And the “non” refers to those who are neither Malays nor Muslims. So, the Muslim non-Malays are not forgotten but grouped into the Malay-Muslims, which is unfortunately a political reality.

    Ideologically, I believe in fragmented and multiple identities. The more complicated identities are, the more interesting and safer a society will be. However for the ease of analysis, writing and reading, I have had to use the shorthand. (Don’t forget TNG will further add [Malaysians] to every ethno-religious marker!)

  14. chinhuatw says:

    @Andrew I, thanks for your compliment but no thanks to your recommendation of prospective employers.

    I am happy to serve the Malaysian public in many ways but hope that I will never have to work as an aide for a politician, even if s/he is not Najib.

  15. Andrew I says:

    Oops, me and my big mouth again. Keep up the good work. Cheers.

  16. megabigBLUR says:

    @ Andrew I and [2nd] class:

    Just because a number of the richest INDIVIDUAL Malaysians are non-Malay non-Muslims, doesn’t mean that the average non-Malay non-Muslim person does not face discrimination. For example, is it rational to say that just because there are a bunch of rich Indian [Malaysians], issues like poverty [and] wages for rubber plantation workers become irrelevant?

  17. Rina says:

    I did not waste my time waiting for “equality” so I took my 1st world degrees and left. I now live in a RM3 million home overlooking the sea in one of the world’s pretties cities. My kids go to a great school (for gifted kids) and we have the usual upper-middle class existence. Best of all, my skills are used daily and did not decay as they might have in KL. I get treated with respect, nobody cares about my race, colour, height, etc. Even better, my kids grow up free of and from racism – both from being discriminated against and also against practising it. For all these blessings, I am thankful to Umno for opening my eyes to the truly green pastures in the West.


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