The Perils of Assimilationist Politics

By Farish A Noor

A quick look at the troubles in the predominantly Muslim-Malay provinces of Southern Thailand – which has been a troubled spot for the past four years at least – would point to a fundamental flaw in the line of thinking of the powers-that-be in Bangkok. Having disregarded the historical factors that make the four provinces of Patani, Jala, Satun and Narathiwat unique compared to the rest of the country, successive governments in Thailand have tried to make the Malay-Muslims of the south think of themselves as Thais, who are an ethnically different people with a language, culture, religion and history of their own.

Since the late 19th century following the conquest of Patani, Jala, Satun and Narathiwat by the Thais, and compounded by the Anglo-Siamese treaty of 1909, the four provinces have experienced what can only be described as a policy of cultural assimilation. During the 1930s and 40s Thai leaders like Phibun Songkram have tried to force Thai culture and cultural norms on the Malays by any means possible: From forcing them to speak Thai to adapting Thai dress and manners as their own.

Needless to say, this has alienated the Malay-Muslims even further, and has only helped to fuel the resentment they feel against the Thai political elite. Over the past four years this resentment has boiled over to the point of violence, leading to the needless and senseless slaughter of innocent Malays and Thais all over the south.

But looking further to the other countries of Southeast Asia we see a similar pattern at work too. The government of Indonesia tried, in the 1950s and 1960s, to force the Chinese minority of the country to adapt and adopt Indonesian cultural norms as well. The Chinese language was cast as a foreign language, Chinese culture was deemed alien and the Chinese were forced to assimilate by taking on Indonesian names and thereby losing their identity. This was done for the sake of national unity and integration, but it was well known that the driving factors behind this were really the conservative and racist elements of the ethno-nationalist right who wished to eliminate all traces of difference in the country. Sukarno was not able or not willing to defend the cultural identity of the Chinese minority, and the net result was the denial of the fact that the Chinese (like the Arabs, Indians and other migrant communities) had settled in the Indonesian archipelago for at least five hundred years.

In Malaysia the elites of the country have likewise been hard at work promoting the ideology of Malay dominance following the racial clashes of 1969. Time and again successive Malaysian politicians have harped on and on about the racial violence in May 1969 and used that as the leitmotif for a cultural assimilationist policy that has only alienated the other communities and which has denied them the right to make their cultural mark on the country.

But while successive generations of right-wing Malay-Muslim politicians in Malaysia have talked at length about the race riots of May 1969, they conveniently overlook that Malaysia has always been a nation of migrants and itinerant communities, and that the so-called ‘foreign’ Indians and Chinese have likewise settled in the land for at least five hundred years. So how long does a migrant have to stay in any country before she or he is accepted as local?

The simmering ethno-cultural and ethno-religious tensions that threaten to rip apart the countries of Southeast Asia thus all have the same factor in common: The desire on the part of the dominant group to impose their cultural-ethnic-religious stamp on all other minorities. Hence the dominance of Burmese culture in Burma, where the Burmese are in fact one of many communities; and the dominance of the Thais in Thailand where there are other communities too. Likewise in Malaysia and Indonesia the nation-building process has been overtaken by the exclusive agendas of the dominant communities despite the fact that these are really multiracial and multi-religious polities that are plural and diverse.

How do we get past this impasse of our own making then? Perhaps the biggest failure of the postcolonial states of Southeast Asia is the fact that most of them took off on an integrationist, assimilationist footing and were foregrounding a national agenda that was sectarian and divisive from the outset. In Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Burma, the concept of universal citizenship remains a distant abstract notion when in fact it ought to have been the foundational pillar to the nation-building process itself.

But nations are all works in progress and thankfully it is never too late to change tack and take on a new trajectory. Part of the solution to the woes of Southern Thailand would be to recognize that the four provinces of the south have a history of their own that demands and requires respect and recognition. The plight of the Malay-Muslims in Southern Thailand is no different from the appeal of non-Malay and non-Muslim minorities in Malaysia and Indonesia: ‘Listen to us, respect us, recognize our culture, language and identity. And then we will be citizens like any other.’

But can the political elite of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia listen to the appeals of the marginal and the minorities? Or will the same cycle of denial, assimilation, forced integration and ultimately violence and rebellion continue to repeat itself, and become the defining feature of the failed nation-building process in all these countries?

  1. #1 by pulau_sibu on Thursday, 29 May 2008 - 8:06 am

    Hinduism in Indonesia worth mentioning because a large part of which stayed as Indonesian culture. My friend from India reminded me of Garuda, the national carrier, which is the name of the flying Hindu God. And there is no need to mention about Bali

  2. #2 by lextcs on Thursday, 29 May 2008 - 9:00 am

    YB kit, now that nepal has abolished the monarchy ….. whats your comment?

  3. #3 by i_love_malaysia on Thursday, 29 May 2008 - 9:34 am

    lextcs Says:

    Today at 09: 00.28 (33 minutes ago)
    YB kit, now that nepal has abolished the monarchy ….. whats your comment?

    What is yours?

  4. #4 by cheng on soo on Thursday, 29 May 2008 - 9:48 am

    There are differences,
    eg. Thai govt can subsidize Muslim Thai citizen (Probably Malay or Indian) to build mosque. Application to build mosque , churches are process , approved within reasonable time (not more than 3 years), Govt scholarship can be given to any Thai citizen who excel in his / her studies (disregard of race). Any Thai citizen (disregard race, religion) can be Prime Minister, town mayors, district chief, VC of universities, etc
    Go to Thailand, for 2 or 3 weeks, & talk to local to find out more differences !

  5. #5 by Mr Smith on Thursday, 29 May 2008 - 9:59 am

    That is why after 50 years of independence we still have Chinese, Indians and Malays but no Malaysians.
    It has been ingrained into the national psyche that this is Tanah Melayu and the others are immigrants.
    So the former assumes they are the Dominant Race and the other their “inferiors”. These litle minds even object vehemently to the naming of roads after “immigrants’.
    The Unites States is also a land of immigrants and one has to visit the country to understand the meaning os assimilation. All are Americans. Yes, even a Chinese or a Japanese or a Malay is eligible to be the President of the United States.

  6. #6 by i_love_malaysia on Thursday, 29 May 2008 - 10:05 am

    Farish A Noor,

    It is human tendency to want others to be like him/her or them if in a community or country or in the world, they want all to be looked the same, speak the same, eat the same, wear the same, act the same etc. , but they have forgotten that all of us are different & unique, as we were created by God differently!!! even twin are different in many ways!!! so when there’re differences, the one who is stronger in will or influence will try to make others to think like him, first by soft approach and if failed, they may use the hard approach e.g. by force etc.!!! the main objective of doing so is to achieve a common goal or goals e.g. in the name of unity etc. .This happens even between husband and wife!!! it would be more obvious when apply to a community, society, country and the world!!! e.g. if Japanese had their way in WWII, they would want the world looked like them, eat like them, sit like them etc. , why they wanted others to be like them, may be they wanted to show that they have the power, influence etc. or they felt that their ways are the best way!!! We have to accept that all of us are different and all these differences will slowly go away when people start to understand what is best for them in terms of hygene etc., e.g. if it is unhygenic to use hands to eat, then we should change the habit to use forks and spoons instead of continue to insist to use hands because it is our culture or worst, to impose on others to do the same!!!

  7. #7 by i_love_malaysia on Thursday, 29 May 2008 - 10:22 am

    Just imagine what will happen to us if Eskimo wanted us to wear like them, eat like them, stay in the same type of house like them in Malaysia!!! or we wanted them to wear like us, eat like us or stay in the same house like us!!!
    Time to change!!! all of us were borned without clothing, so please dont impose on others how to wear as long as it is modest and not indecent!!!

  8. #8 by lovemalaysiaforever on Thursday, 29 May 2008 - 11:26 am

    That is why we must always say to ourselves and others that we are all Malaysian and not to be describe as Malaysian-Chinese, Malaysian-Indian or what so ever.

  9. #9 by rainbowseahorse on Thursday, 29 May 2008 - 11:29 am

    We ALL know what has to be done and need to be done, BUT MOST of us are either afraid to speak out too openly (due to ISA, political party ideology & believes, ect.), prohibition to open protest/marches due to suppression by law, religious fanaticism, and potential whiplash at work or business. We tend to leave our grievances to other fellow Malaysians, like members of the DAP in particular, to do what we are reluctant and afraid to do.
    In truth, without the DAP, Malaysians are very mute!

  10. #10 by bumi-non-malay on Thursday, 29 May 2008 - 11:42 am


    Waah you so clever eh…trying to trap Lim Senior so can have sedition charged invoked……

    Why not someone runnig this Blog give me his IP address…..I will check out his HQ and play-play with him.

    Nepal have it own problems so have Malaysia……dunggu like you I predict something bad to happen in 5 days time……careful where you walk…….I will source you out in time and see if you are worthy of my effort!!….believe it!!

  11. #11 by JeyS on Thursday, 29 May 2008 - 11:56 am

    i have been ex-ed bcos i spoke the truth? Thats sad….

    LKS sir,

    Meant no bad intentions on the comment i wrote, its the truth and it happened….and still happening.

    Long live the true malaysians….

  12. #12 by Kathy on Thursday, 29 May 2008 - 2:17 pm

    I agree with lovemalaysiaforever – we should identify ourselves as Malaysians. Plain and simple. Do away with Malayisan Chinese, etc. We are already in the 21st Century – why are we still carrying the old colonial thinking about attaching race to our nationality.

    By the way, Mr Smith need to do more research about one becoming the President of United States of America. It is not so simple as it seems.

    Thailand has more tolerance in the area of religion as compared to many countries. What is happening in Southern Thailand needs to be addressed properly in the sense of studying the root of the possible problem of unrest instead of the symptoms that are appearing now.

  13. #13 by Mr Smith on Thursday, 29 May 2008 - 3:58 pm


    I said “eligible” to be the President.

  14. #14 by nikdublin on Thursday, 29 May 2008 - 4:40 pm

    It came to my attention after reading the comment from Mr Smith. I find it hilarious when he said any races can be the president of US. Well,I’ve been living quite awhile in Dublin, the country which is a close ally of US. Even the Irish don’t find the US as democratic as they claimed to be. Only now we can find a colored people going for presidency. And look at how they treated and named the colored people there? You can also try to find out how long it takes for the UK to solve the matters the with IRA even though they have the same color. In Malaysia, we are not only have difference in colors but cultures and religions. For your info, we are only 50 plus years independence. So, Mr Smith, please check your facts right before giving any funny comments. Learn the history of Malaysia. I’m telling you this because I am also a second class citizen in Ireland. Am I complaining? No! Why? Because my ancestors are not Irish.

  15. #15 by pongsakling on Thursday, 29 May 2008 - 5:23 pm

    I believe only a big disaster like cyclon in Myanmar or earthquake in Sichuan can bring all Malaysian together.
    If disaster happen, will only non bumi perish? or only bumiputera will perish? Will umno still call them self ketuanan melayu?
    Don’t be surprise to see “pendatang” like myself help ketuanan Melayu and vice versa.
    I believe we Malaysian are too comfortable and have too much free time to divide ourself.
    May God teach us a lesson.

  16. #16 by AhPek on Thursday, 29 May 2008 - 6:11 pm

    Colin Power was once approached to get him to be a Presidential candidate for the Republican Party but he graciously declined. And he wasn’t born in America.He is an immigrant and black!
    What Smith is probably trying to convey is this …that if you are accepted as citizen you are a first class citizen just like anyone else (even the same as those born citizens) and can aspire to be anything even the top post of America!
    On the flip side compare that with Malaysia.You are a born non bumiputra citizen,maybe even third generation and this Indonesian guy who came over some few months somehow managed to get citizenship is now enjoying a status far better than you.You a born and bred in this country is a second class citizen and that new arrival is first class.That’s for you to mull over!

  17. #17 by donplaypuks on Thursday, 29 May 2008 - 6:35 pm

    Dear Farish

    Isn’t what is happening in Thailand also true of what’s been happening on M’sia, except that here the Malay Muslims are in control?

    Rather than promote & accept 1 citizenship and Bangsa Malaysia, we are being told that we must not question Ketuanan Melayu. More than that, ‘cultutal swamping’ is the norm – just take a look at what the Govt owned/linked Radio & TV Stations broadcast.

    So, is there a solution?

  18. #18 by cvl on Thursday, 29 May 2008 - 10:50 pm

    While Farish pointed out the dominance of the Burmese, Thais and the Filiponos in their countries over their other minorities, he did not point out the inherent difference in the type of dominance in Malaysia and Indonesia. Both in Malaysia and Indonesia religious assimilation is the overall object and measure of dominance.

    In Malaysia, the desire to religiously assimilate are seen in many forms, but the one clear official proof is political statements stating Malaysia is an Islamic country vs being an official religion. The Malaysian Parliament points ever ready to whether Malaysia is a secular nation with unsettled arguments over what is constitutionally written and what the politics of the day deem so. And there are the other recognized bumiputras who politically and economically describe themselves as being second class citizen on the divide of religion.

    Both the Malaysian Rukun Negara and the Indonesian Pancasila refer to ketuhanan, and both have its unwritten understanding to the Muslim interpretation of it. Meanwhile various Indonesians groups have been incisive to the extent of waging bloody civil disturbances between Christians and Muslim, widely reported in international and local papers particularly in the immediate pre Suharto downfall.

    While the overall objective of religious disturbances can be multifaceted, there is general perception that minorities such as in Southern Thailand and Philippines have coupled their religious interpretations as the more righteous over their national requirements, and vent their anger where they see national objectives are not in line with the ways they have it interpreted. Certainly, religious revivalism in the region has prompted many of these recent upheavals.

    Contrast these to the minorities in Malaysia and Indonesia whose wants are for space for freedom without being differentiated and that their practice do not impose on others.

    Indeed as the OP wrote this impasse is our own human making. To go beyond this impasse is a solution found only in better and more principled human being. In other words, leaders who are in authority over religion must look beyond mere religious interpretations by human thru human.

    One way is to consider nature. The universal god does not need any human to write god’s book; it is there in nature, the universe that is before and part of us.

  19. #19 by undergrad2 on Friday, 30 May 2008 - 12:27 am

    “Colin Power was once approached to get him to be a Presidential candidate for the Republican Party but he graciously declined. And he wasn’t born in America.He is an immigrant and black!” AhPek

    In the U.S. to be eligible to be President you would have to be a born citizen and not naturalized – like the Governor of California! The U.S> Constitution would have to be amended before Arnold could stand for the U.S> Presidential election.

    Correction. Colin Powell is a born U.S. citizen. He is not an immigrant! The reason why he had not stood for his Party’s primary elections leading to the U.S. Presidential elections is because his wife threatened to leave him if he did. She feared he would be assassinated if he became U.S. President. That is not hearsay but a fact.

    Barack Obama likely to become the next U.S. President is under heavy security provided by the U.S. government ever since threats were received early in the contest. Michelle (his wife) is resigned to whatever fate awaits her husband.

  20. #20 by isahbiazhar on Friday, 30 May 2008 - 6:10 am

    Sothern Thailand will live in its identity;Malay and Muslim.The Thais had failed and made the situation even worse.All politcal leaders had thought the same;they want the majority to win for their own survival.It will not work unless the Thai regime resort to a holocaust.Southern Thailand had to be treated with respect before they respond.Malaysia had played its part but the Thais are suspicious.Create an autonomous country and see the fruit.

  21. #21 by AhPek on Friday, 30 May 2008 - 11:42 am

    undergrad 2,

    You are right on both scores ….one regarding eligibility to stand for the US Presidency for which I thought any US citizen would be eligible, and the other one regarding Colin Powell’s personal details.His parents were Jaimaican immigrants and he was raised in South Bronx.I thought my memory can be dependable but you have obviously cast grave doubt on that confidence I thought I have on that dependence.Thanks anyway for pointing out.

    Nonetheless, it doesn’t change fundamentally from what I thought what Smith wanted to convey unless he comes out to say I’ve read him wrongly.

  22. #22 by ChinNA on Saturday, 31 May 2008 - 10:16 am

    There is a strong sentiment of being ‘Malaysian’ here to the extent that not promoting the idea of Malaysia-Chinese, Malaysian-Indian etc.

    I begged to differ. To me, I will always treasure and keep my ethnicity. However, that does not mean I need to discriminate against another race.

    When due merictocracy should practiced and where appropriate racial atrributes needed to be allowed, if not flourish.

    If we can separate nationality, ethnicity and meritocracy as pillars that we operate on, then I see no reason to sacrifice one for the other.

    A comment on the above article. I am surprised that Singapore is not listed as one of the countries that tries to promote assimilation.

    Can that be true that Singapore does not?

    I have always thought that Singapore is a Chinese country.

  23. #23 by cheng on soo on Tuesday, 3 June 2008 - 12:25 am

    Wonder, whether, Thai politicians always shouted “Ketuanan Thai” or ask their citizen of Chinese descend to go back to China, citizen of Indian descend go back to India or citizen of Malay descend go back to Malaysia, or Indonesia, etc etc ???
    whether there is 10% discount when buy a house for Thai, or quota for Thai to go University etc?

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