Addressing a polarised Malaysia

Wong Chin Yoong

The writer believes that the optimal response towards political and social polarisation is to create a national identity that becomes the pivot of all the different communities in the country. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, August 22, 2023.

THE recent six-state elections, which resulted in a status quo, showed that the political and social fissure in the country is deepening more than ever: rural and suburban folk throwing their support behind Perikatan Nasional (PN) versus urbanites voting for the unity government. More specifically, the majority of Malay choosing PN and the Chinese, DAP.

The nation appears to be polarised politically along the ethnic and geographical lines.

Polarisation is not all bad. Human beings live and interact in localised communities, not in a vacuum that transcends cultural and linguistic borders.

We find people who look and talk like us more accessible, and those who share similar backgrounds, ideology, culture, and religion less intimidating. It is nothing but natural.

So, we sort ourselves into groupings we prefer. If politics implies the activities associated with the power to govern an area or a state, then politics is everywhere and it is always identity-oriented.

Unless the political domain overlaps exactly with an exclusive grouping, a political area inevitably coincides with multiple groupings with varying interests and orientations, which can result in alienation from each other. Polarisation then becomes an inevitable outcome.  

In this context, I find the Malays seeking PN as a political agent that safeguards their interests while Chinese pivoting to DAP in hopes of maintaining a secular society understandably rational.

But the caveat is obvious: what’s good for one group is not necessarily good for others, especially when alienation from each other jeopardises the middle ground for compromises.

In a polarised society, we are confronted with a quickly narrowing path for the government to strike a balance among groupings with different demands. In order to satisfy vastly contrasting needs, government expenditure is inevitably larger, and the budget deficit becomes stickier.

Many worry that the Anwar Ibrahim administration, which seems to have lost its legitimacy among Malay voters, would have no choice but to turn conservative when it comes to matters of religion and ethnicity.   

It won’t be worrisome if being conservative returning to classical conservatism, where free market economy is combined with respect for established tradition and religious values.

It will be disastrous, however, if the administration itself skews towards certain groups, when the state becomes the machine that facilitates manmade polarisation on top of the natural groupings.

Therefore, the optimal response towards polarisation is to create a national identity that becomes the pivot of all the different groupings.

The best reaction to identity politics is not to disregard identity. Pursuing identity-less politics resonates with no one. It’s better to embrace identity politics and recognise communal identities at the same time, thus broadening the domain of identity from communal to national.

By saying so, I’m afraid that the Madani economy is not up to the task – at least not yet – for two reasons:

First, while it seeks to establish a national identity, where together we’re proud to make Malaysia the world’s 30 largest economy, economically a regional middle power, and share 45% of national income to labourers, the fact that it proceeds with no regard to identities resonates with no one.

Second, in the world of identity politics, income inequality, be it between or within ethnic groups, is getting less important, as people see and identify themselves through the non-monetary lens. What matters is political and economic insecurity.

Inequality and insecurity are two different beasts that require different policy responses. If the former requires “redistributing resources from the richly endowed to poorly endowed groups”, the latter is about “the fear of losing resources, rights and endowment to others”.

Put it differently, if you believe that redistributive policies are going to moderate polarisation, you’re likely to be disappointed in the end; redistribution makes the givers more insecure as they’re losing resources right now, while the takers are also getting more insecure as they have more to lose in the future.

Redistribution policy only fosters communal identity politics at the expense of national identity. The world of insecurity needs a rethinking of policies that guarantees the endowments of every grouping.

This train of thought – “focusing on economic reform, showing them what this government can achieve” – which many argue to be the formula to win back the votes, will not work as well should voters group themselves and view others through the non-monetary lens.

Remember them time when the Najib administration abolished the quota system and pushed for liberal economic reform? Chinese voters, as the biggest beneficiaries of such reform, without reluctance rejected him in the 2013 general election, as well as in 2018, because of who he and the party were.

I believe this time is no different for Malay voters.  

Economic reform no doubt must go on, not for contemporaneous political consideration, but to leave an economic legacy that underpins healthier political competition. – August 22, 2023.

* Wong Chin Yoong is a professor of economics at Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman, Kampar campus.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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