Is There Really No Alternative? Communal and Capitalist Realism in Malaysia

Is There Really No Alternative? Communal and Capitalist Realism in Malaysia

Image Source: Malaysiakini

Jeremy Lim

A preliminary examination of communal and capitalist realism in Malaysia, and the forces that reproduce it. ‘It’s easier to imagine the end of Malaysia than the end of communalism (or racialism) in Malaysia.’

See glossary below.

“There is No Alternative.” 

This phrase — used by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to articulate that market capitalism isn’t and will never be going anywhere — epitomises clearly the feeling of living in Malaysia at times. For many of us, the victory of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition in the 2018 General Election was the first time it seemed that a rupture had occurred. The then-ruling regime led by UMNO – the Malay nationalist party most widely associated with our independence struggle – was defeated after more than 60 years in government. 

That perceived rupture, however, then quickly collapsed in on itself. Even before the disintegration of the Pakatan Harapan government in the now infamous ‘Sheraton Move’, the consolidation of Malay nationalism in UMNO’s alliance with the hard-line Islamist party, PAS, the multiple defeats of PH in subsequent by-elections, and the slow and middling reforms that were brought about in those brief twenty-one months, all signalled that the rupture could be short-lived, and yet, even that didn’t last. It seems like we are back to square one, tumbling toward the return of UMNO as a dominant force in politics and society. 

In describing this long-standing social reality, a useful concept that is worth borrowing is the notion of “capitalist realism” expanded on by Mark Fisher, best explained through a quote he uses, “It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” This notion of realism as an always-present and seemingly undefeatable social force appears suited to help explore the nature of Malaysia’s political economy and the formidable ideological superstructure it has built for itself. In this essay, I attempt to analyse the ‘realisms’ that define Malaysian society and what it may feel like to live in it. Namely, the ‘communal realism’ that we cannot seem to escape, and the capitalist realism that lies beneath it. 

Communal (or Racial) Realism 

Race and ethnicity have come to define the terms of almost every discourse in Malaysian society. This can seem rather obvious to restate but even as the squabbles over the spoils of state between UMNO and BERSATU play out in the press, this fact appears increasingly inescapable. Lee Hwok Aun’s recent article on what he conceives of as “seemingly impossible futures” when picturing the end of Bumiputera policies, acutely captures the ‘racial’ realism that very much permeates our public discourse.

Underpinning the all-pervading nature of this ethnic perspective are the unspoken terms of public discourse. The unquestionable sanctity of Article 153; the constant spectre of backlash from the conservative rural heartlands – often wrongly painted as conservative and altogether homogenous in their fealty to UMNO; the patronising notion that Malays will always need a protector; the knee-jerk demonisation of left-wing and communist movements. All these ideas serve to reinforce the notion that Malaysia’s social contract cannot and will never be rewritten, radically limiting the space for imagining alternatives. 

Even the ‘Bangsa Malaysia’ discourse is trapped within the framework of seeking the bringing together of individuals from different ethnic origins rather than universal subjects that are identified with the nation on explicitly non-racial terms. All the talk of multiculturalism, from both sides of the political aisle, does not necessarily serve as an escape from communal realism but in turn, might reinforce it through the very articulation of the need for a multicultural peace between the races. The notion of Malaysian society being race-blind — whatever you may think of its morality or efficacy — seems out of reach. 

Capitalist Realism with Malaysia Characteristics

Beneath the communal realism in Malaysia is capitalist realism which we have absorbed so fully in the pursuit of economic growth and supposed prosperity for all. While Fisher depicts capitalist realism through a variety of cultural and psychoanalytic examples, it may be easier to look at the language and framing used with discussing economic issues in the Malaysian sphere, and how it trickled down into the public’s imagination.  

The pursuit of GDP at the unseen expense of greater human suffering; the repeated need to tailor policies to court investors and not scare away foreign direct investments (FDI); the implicit belief that markets do better than other actors like the state and civil society at producing economic growth; the constant call for the youth to gain skills for the market rather than for their personal development or well-being; the public recoil at the idea of the central bank actively intervening in the economy. These ideas are cultivated within the society through a combination of import from advanced capitalist countries as well as propagation by local elites educated in these very countries. One clear example is the austerity agenda of the Pakatan Harapan government that reflected the economic conservatism of the allegedly progressive political class. Just like their communal counterpart, these ideas continue to constrain the economic reality we live in, even though there have been mountains of evidence to the contrary. 

There are, however, some minor modifications to be made to capitalist realism — usually framed in the hegemonic Western context — to fit a Malaysian context where communalism is interwoven into our economic structure. The massive and complex network of government-linked companies (GLCs), statutory bodies, politically affiliated tycoons, middlemen that are reliant on affirmative action policies, state-backed monopolies and the list goes on and on. The thought of disentangling the state and its New Economic Policy (NEP) roots from the economic system can be doubly impossible given the intersection of these two realisms. 

Who Created the Two ‘Realisms’ and How are They Maintained? 

This naturally leads to the question of who put this in place and how is it maintained. A plausible candidate for what drives both Malaysian realisms would be Malay nationalism in its modern right-wing incarnations and the accompanying capitalist structure it built for itself. UMNO and its partners in BN were able to set up institutions that inject these ideological framings into the wider society through their domination of the state apparatus for more than half a century. Once a whole host of societal institutions are ‘infected’ with communal and capitalist realism, they then, in turn, serve to enforce and reproduce the ideas associated with them. 

The political class across the entire spectrum acknowledge and reiterate that Malay nationalist parties will always be needed to win elections, and the demographic projection that Malays will make up 70% of the population by 2040 reinforces this notion even further. State institutions carry out affirmative action policies with undue reverence for UMNO and its allies. The education system actively erases any trace of a past that could have been different or better, and only holds up a history of the present that was inevitable. Businesses, both big and small, accept the corruption-ridden and one-sided state of play within the economy, repeating cynically that “this is how business is (always) done.” 

These realisms, however, do not exist purely in the realm of thought and ideas. People internalise these ideas and then act in the world as though it is and will always be this way. And how can people blame them? Ordinary Malaysians see their manifestations reinforced in the institutions around them, in newspaper articles, in conversations with friends and family, and most directly, in the capitalist market and workplaces. 

When and How Does This End? 

Capitalism and capitalist realism are still here with us, and it has even been able to reassert itself globally even after the 2007-8 Great Financial Crisis. Malaysian capitalism has not seen a mass delegitimation or anything resembling a crisis of confidence. Failures in the economy are often able to be deflected to individuals or specific companies. The 1MDB scandal was pinned on a handful of individuals and the poster boy for it remains the former prime minister Najib Razak, rather than any structural critique of the underlying systems that allowed it to happen. 

Communalism and Malay nationalism, on the other hand, has had crises both internally and outwardly. The many splits in UMNO and the weakness of the BN component parties have offered glimmers of hope for a time. Yet, these crises have never been able to destabilise Malay nationalism or communal realism to the point of annihilation. 

Fisher attempts to offer the hope that if the Left is able to present genuinely viable alternatives in an atmosphere of suffocating impossibility, it has the potential to create ruptures and in time possibly vanquish capitalist realism. The task at hand is to develop a concrete understanding of Malaysia’s social forces in order that any praxis developed is able to pierce the veil of both communal and capitalist realism. 

This short essay cannot hope to do justice to the vast network of social systems and institutions that sustain Malaysia’s communal and capitalist realism, let alone present the aforementioned viable alternatives, but I will be expanding on it in future essays and articles. All the same, it is worth ending on this positive note about changing the world in the midst of Malaysia’s communal and capitalist realism. 

“the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.” ― David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy

Note: This article was inspired by an article in a Thai publication, Din Deng.

Short Glossary

The 1MDB scandal – This refers to a 2015 scandal in which then-Prime Minister, Najib Razak, was accused of channelling over RM 2.67 billion from 1Malaysia Development Berhad, a government-run strategic development company, to his personal bank accounts. 

Article 153 of the Malaysian constitution grants the King the responsibility for safeguarding the special position of the ‘Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak and the legitimate interests of other communities. Most often seen as the legal justification for affirmative action policies. 

Bangsa Malaysia – A policy introduced by the fourth Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, to foster a more inclusive national identity rather than the individual ethnic identities. 

BERSATU (The word for united in Malay) –The Malaysian United Indigenous Party is a component party of the ruling coalition, with its current leader, Muhyiddin Yassin serving as the current and eighth Prime Minister. This party was founded by Mahathir Mohamad who is no longer with the party and a splinter party of UMNO. 

BN (Barisan Nasional) – This is the primary ruling coalition that has ruled Malaysia from independence till 2018, historically consisting of UMNO, the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress. A variety of other parties have since joined BN from the 70s onwards. 

Communalism – A politics in which the primacy of a specific ethnic, cultural or religious identity becomes the central organising principle. Distinct from the communalism of Murray Bookchin, the libertarian socialist, which advocates for a confederation of highly independent communes/associations. 

GE14 – Malaysia’s fourteenth general election was a historic election in which the toppling of the BN government for the first time since independence took place on 9 May 2018. 

New Economic Policy (NEP) – A slate of affirmative action policies that were implemented post the 1969 racial riots, focused on poverty alleviation, reorganising of the economy away from the colonial era segmentation of sectors (Malay’s in subsistence agriculture, Chinese in mining and Indians in the plantations), improving Malay incomes and ownership of equity. 

PAS – The Malaysian Islamic Party an Islamist political party, current in government with the present coalition. This party is also a splinter party of UMNO from the 1950s, prior to independence. 

Pakatan Harapan – The coalition of parties that won the fourteenth general election, consisting of BERSATU (prior to their leaving the coalition in 2020 in the Sheraton Move), PKR (another UMNO splinter party led by Anwar Ibrahim), DAP (a centre-left party) and Amanah (a splinter party of PAS). 

Sheraton Move – The events that took place in late February 2020 that resulted in the toppling of the Pakatan Harapan government, the defection of BERSATU from that government, and the formation of a new government, mainly consisting of BERSATU, UMNO and PAS, with Muhyiddin Yassin as Prime Minister. 

UMNO – The United Malays National Organisation, founded in 1946, is the leading member of the BN coalition that has dominated Malaysian politics since independence. Most of its leadership occupied a majority of cabinets during their rule over the administration of Malaysia’s first six prime ministers, all of which came from UMNO.