Isnin, 26 Ogos 2013

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Us versus them – Othering in the Malaysian elections and beyond (Part 1)

Posted: 25 Aug 2013 03:50 PM PDT

Business as usual – that's what the process and result of the recently held 13th general election in Malaysia seems to indicate. Once again the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition won the elections (albeit for the first time with less than 50 per cent of the popular vote). Once again after 2008 the opposition pact Pakatan Rakyat (PR) managed to reduce this majority against a number of odds in an electoral system based on competitive authoritarianism (Levitsky and Way 2002). PR's more inclusive approach seems to have won over at least significant majorities in the urban and semi-urban areas, making it look like a shining example of how to transgress the deeply-entrenched ethnicised[1] structures of Malaysia's political system.

However, as we have argued elsewhere, processes of ethnicisation are much more complex and manifest that they could simply be overcome by changing the political approach towards it (Holst 2012: 206). In this two-part article, we shall thus take a closer look at the background of some aspects of PR's campaigning in the light of the phantom voter issue. This debate has been going on for decades, but has taken a different twist this time with the focus on foreigners who were said to have been given citizenship in return for BN votes, therefore thwarting PR's chance of winning the elections. How is this foreignness constructed and what implications do some of the mechanisms of these constructions have?

Categories help to sort and understand the world we live in, both in academic discourse as well as in daily lives. However, every categorisation draws boundaries which are often used to exclude people from groups, and often this entails excluding them from specific privileges. The 'us' and 'them' groups that are thereby drawn can result in resentments and, in the worst cases, even hatred and genocide (Appadurai 2006).

Departing from the recent discussions on non-Malaysian voters in the general elections 2013, this article explores the various boundaries and exclusion mechanisms that predominate the Malaysian social and political landscape. Our argument is that the tendencies of 'Othering'[2] visible in the recent elections offer an important opportunity to look into how deeply and in what ways mechanisms of division and exclusion are enmeshed in Malaysia's social fabric. This is not only academically interesting but also important in order to enable those individuals and groups who seek to counter these divisions to do so holistically on a broad scale.

In order to properly understand the divisive potential of the way voters were encouraged to watch out for "non-Malaysians," we will firstly turn one of the most important boundaries/lines of exclusion, namely that between those citizens classified as Malays versus those registered as non-Malays. During the past decades, this differentiation has increasingly been framed in religious terms and is expressed in many a discussion on 'Muslims' versus 'non-Muslims'.

Ethnicisation of religious identities: A Malay is a Muslim is a Malay…

Islam and Malay identity are closely tied together and perpetuated in various ways, most notably through the legal system as well as through textual representations. Constitutionally, a Malay is defined as someone who speaks the Malay language, practices Malay customs and professes the religion of Islam (Art.160). Ethnicised and race-based politics that build upon these constitutionally defined identity markers become visible on various levels, including the level of language. This can be observed in daily communication but is especially evident in the media.

An analysis of a large number of articles concerning the topic of 'religious freedom' in the Malaysian daily newspaper 'The New Straits Times' between 2001 and 2007 revealed that in most articles, 'Islam' is tied to Malayness and framed in ethnicised terms (Schaefer 2009). In the vast majority of print media, the two categories of race and religion, in particular in the case of Malayness and Islam, are used in a way that may be called synonymous. Very often, "race and religion" and the formulation "multi-racial and multi-religious" are mentioned together as if an inseparable tandem. An example is this sentence from an article about Christmas carols in the daily newspaper 'The New Straits Times': "They (Christmas carols) are certainly not out of place in an Open House, which Rais correctly describes as 'a joyous occasion where people of all races and religions can get together and partake of the celebration."[3] This formulation includes the word 'race' and thereby suggests that there are 'racial' festivities, or that festivities are likely to be celebrated only with people of your own 'race'

Several other examples show this synonymous use: "The Prime Minister said religious tolerance among the various races was vital in preserving the country's peace and harmony".[4] Here, rather than saying 'among the various religious communities', the word 'race' is utilised. Another pattern is the preceding mentioning of 'non-Muslims' and then referring to the Chinese: "He said PAS' stand on the matter was also causing fear among non-Muslim communities. Ong said the MCA and Chinese (emphasis ours) accepted and respected Islam as the official religion, but, this was not applicable to PAS' plans".[5] "Malaysian Chinese have been assured that they will not lose their rights and privileges despite the recent statement by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad that the country is an Islamic state." [6]

These examples demonstrate the synonymous use and illustrate the shift from an emphasis on race or ethnicity to that of religion. Here, the boundaries of the 'we'- and 'they'- groups are shifting.

The causes and effects of the establishing and perpetuating of these boundaries are manifold. They can partially explained with the tight control on the print media on part of the Malaysian state apparatus whose interest in a divided and fragmented society is obvious. However, the phenomenon of the synonymous use is not restricted to the print media which are controlled or overseen by the government and affected by technologies of self-censorship. Rather, it can also be observed in the independent news websites to a similar extent.



Uncommon Sense with Wong Chin Huat: Beyond election petitions

Posted: 25 Aug 2013 01:49 PM PDT

IT would seem there is still dust in the air even though it's been nearly four months since the 5 May 2013 general election known as GE13. Post-elections, Barisan Nasional (BN) filed 21 election petitions while Pakatan Rakyat (PR) lodged 35 of its own in both parliamentary and state seats. Additionally, there has been talk of a unity government even though this has been denied by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

Why bother with election petitions? And what's beyond these election petitions and all that talk of a unity government? What else do citizens need to be aware of and be vigilant about if Malaysians are to get a cleaner and fairer electoral system come GE14? The Nut Graph asks political scientist Dr Wong Chin Huat.

Was there any difference in the motivation behind BN's and behind PR's election petitions? What's the purpose of petitioning? Why not just accept the results of GE13?

Candidates file election petitions for two reasons. It's either to have the election outcome overturned so that they can be declared the rightful winners without fresh elections, or nullified so that they can have a second chance in a new election which should be run fairly.

Election petitions are stories where there are villains. These villains are at best, incompetent people who make stupid but innocent mistakes and at worst, evil people who violate democracy through deliberate fraud and manipulation.

For the PR, the story is straightforward. The villains are the BN and the Election Commission (EC) it controls which denied PR their victory. I doubt that PR was hoping to overturn the results in any of the constituencies they filed petitions for. Rather, their aim was to force re-elections.

Had they secured re-elections in all the 25 parliamentary seats they petitioned for, it would have been a mega season of by-elections. With the remaining 108 seats in BN's hands and 89 seats in PR's hands, it would have been a national referendum for the electorate in those 25 constituencies to decide whether PR should be made the new government. Of course, PR would have known there was a fat chance of that happening.

Is the BN suggesting PR is powerful, or that Bersih 2.0 is right about the EC's incompetence?

For the BN, the story is more complicated. It is perfectly fine for a few candidates to feel wronged by the system. But what message is BN sending by appealing the outcome in 21 out of 727 (nearly 3%) of the parliamentary and state seats it contested? That the PR is so powerful that they can play dirty in so many places? Or that the Bersih 2.0 coalition was right about the EC's incompetence in conducting elections?

I suspect the real reason for the BN's many election petitions was insurance. In the event some judges boldly rule in the opposition's favour, the BN can then count on some court wins to negate those PR victories.




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