By Farish A. Noor
Sectarianism, be it on the grounds of race, culture, language or religion, can only be divisive in the long run. The sad litany of human history shows that religion can and has been used as a dividing factor that has torn many a society apart, and this is true of all religions and belief systems worldwide. One only needs to look at the process of Balkanisation that took place in Eastern Europe to see how Religion has been instrumentalised and manipulated by sectarian politicians to amplify the centrifugal forces of a
plural society like Bosnia’s, and how that eventually led to all-out civil conflict along religion and cultural lines.
Politicians of course are fully aware of the divisive potential of sectarian politics, so why do they constantly fall back on such parochial and primordial sentiments such as racial, cultural and religious loyalty to serve their own limited ends? Weighing the costs of such moves may point us to the simple conclusion that sectarian politicians seldom care about the unity and well-being of the nation as a whole, particularly when that nation happens to be a complex and plural one in the first place. More often than
not, the demagogues and chauvinists among us would be more inclined to keep to their own narrow corners and seek solace and support from their own respective communities.
These observations should hardly come as news to Malaysia-watchers in particular, for we all know by now that Malaysia’s convoluted 50-year history has been one dominated and almost entirely determined by the logic of racial compartmentalism and communitarianism. Every single leader who has climbed up the greasy pole of power in the country has done so by playing the race — and now increasingly, religion — card close to his chest. It should therefore come as even less of a surprise that there is now talk of forming a Malaysian Muslim Workers’ Union (PPIM) in the country, as if Malaysian society was not divided enough already.
Over the past two years the country has witnessed the emergence of around a dozen now religion-based NGOs and civil society organisations, most of them appealing to Malaysian Muslims in particular. While there used to be universalist, inclusive organisations that brought together Malaysians of various racial and professional background like factory workers, labourers,
lawyers, businesspeople, professionals etc. we now see the emergence of organisations that cater to the interests of Muslims primarily and exclusively. The PPIM is just the latest nail in the coffin of Malaysia’s failed attempts towards pluralism and multiculturalism, and should it come to pass then it would mean that yet another neutral public space in the public domain has been lost. Why was there ever a need for the PPIM in the first place, when surely the Malaysian Trade Unions organisation (MTUC) was there to unite all the workers of Malaysia under a common universal basis of shared collective class interests?
Two factors need to be taken into consideration here:
The first is the fact that since the late 1960s Malaysian society has witnessed the instrumentalisation of religion — and in particular Islam — by right-wing communitarian politicians and activists who sought to mobilise Muslims as a bloc vote and political constituency. It began with sectarian organisations like ABIM and other Muslim students groups on campus that sought to introduce their brand of ‘Islamisation from below’, and whatever radical impact they could have had — by rejecting Western
economic-political-military hegemony across the world, for instance — was compromised by their own limited sectarian and exclusive worldview that was equally hegemonic in its ambitions. In time the potential of such groups was compromised as their leaders and members were co-opted by the ruling elite; the co-optation of ABIM’s leader Anwar Ibrahim by the then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad being a case in point.
Secondly it should be stated frankly that all this talk of ‘protecting’ the seemingly unique interests of the Malay-Muslims in Malaysia is little more than fluff and nonsense, for the real agenda all along has been the furthering of the right-wing agenda of Malay-Muslim supremacy above all else. Malaysia’s Islamisation process pushed by Mahathir and Anwar in the 1980s and 1990s led to the further entrenchment of Malay-Muslim political and class interests; and benefited the ruling BN-led government and its
clients most of all, further adding to the dominance of Malay-Muslims in the civil service, army and police; and further embedded Islam at the centre of Malaysian politics. It was not the universal values of Islam that were served here, but rather the agenda of Malay-Muslim supremacy otherwise known as ‘Ketuanan Melayu’.
The net result of the current moves to create a parallel Muslim workers movement in Malaysia can therefore only split Malaysian society even further along religious communitarian lines and therefore help to ensure the dominance of the communitarian parties and elites currently running the country. How are the workers of Malaysia — who ought to be united along the basis of class solidarity and common class action — to be served by the creation of such a body that will split their numbers by half at least? Are we to believe that the poverty and exploitation of Muslim workers in Malaysia is qualitatively different to that of his or her non-Muslim comrade? The mind boggles… What will be next? A Malaysian Muslim stamp collectors’ organisation?
Consequently the Muslim workers of Malaysia must realise that these attempts to create parallel movements that cater to their own limited exclusive interests will do a disservice to them in the long run. For their own sake, and for the sake of the workers struggle in Malaysia, they need to remember that their loyalty and camaraderie has to lie with their fellow workers and comrades in the workers movement of Malaysia as a whole, regardless of racial, cultural or religious differences.
Dr. Farish A Noor is a political scientist and historian at the Zentrum Moderner Orient and guest Professor at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University, Jogjakarta. He is also one of the founders of the research site www.othermalaysia.org.