Multiculturalism in Southeast Asia
Muhamad Ali, Jakarta | Fri, 12/09/2011 10:25 AM
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The condition of being culturally diverse is neither uniquely modern nor Western, but as an approach, multiculturalism is quite a modern concept (born in mid-20th century). In Southeast Asia, multiculturalism has become constructed and contested in state and society.
Some refer to the pre-colonial time when cities were a pluralistic melting point of peoples from all over Southeast Asia, depicting the archipelago as one of the crossroads of world civilizations. During the colonial time, British scholar, J.S. Furnivall used “plural societies” to describe Southeast Asian societies, “two or more elements or social orders which live side by side, yet without mingling, in one political unit”.
The colonial policies of assimilation, segregation, transmigration, ethnic categorization, adat-recht (customary law) codification, politics of Islam and regulations have impacted on post-colonial multiculturalism. But networks of Islamic reformism, Hinduization, Buddhist Mahayani and later Theravada propagation, Christianization, Chinese migration and assimilation and other processes have shaped the way in which multiculturalism has taken different forms.
Some of the post-colonial legacies include the category of pribumi (indigenous) and non-pribumi (particularly, Chinese peranakan and totok). The indigenous peoples became masyarakat adat (cultural society), and their religions became “kepercayaan” (belief). Organizational plurality (Sarekat Islam, Nahdlatul Ulama, Muhammadiyah and so forth) emerged in response to global Islam (including Wahhabism), but also to colonial politics and domestic conditions in Muslim societies.
Throughout the Old Order and the New Order, ideological and cultural rivalries developed. Pancasila, Bhineka Tunggal Ika (unity in diversity), the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia and the 1945 Constitution have become ties that bind Indonesian citizens across the multicultural spectrum. In terms of language, the use of the Indonesian national language and ethnic languages take turns in terms of priority and usage among some 300 ethnic groups.
In contemporary times, ethno-religious conflicts, religious radicalism and extremism, gender discrimination, globalized theories of clash of civilizations and Westernized assumptions of multiculturalism have become factors for thinking of multiculturalism as a problem, an approach or a solution. In Indonesia, the Free Aceh Movement and its colonial and New Order histories, made Aceh an autonomous region, along with its aspiration for the implementation of Islamic law of its own.
At the same time, regional autonomy gives rise to Islamic bylaws supported by few Islamist parties and secular politicians wanting people’s votes. The problem of Ahmadiyah didn’t exist until there was an Islamic revival involving the established ulema council (MUI) who sought to maintain orthodoxy in response to both internal and external threats, along with secularism, pluralism and liberalism.
The notion of heresy became popularized. The status of lesbians and homosexuals has become controversial too. Multiculturalism became an approach to address attitudes and policies deemed intolerant, discriminatory and unjust to the “marginalized”.
In Malaysia, multiculturalism as an approach and policy is also shaped by pre-colonial and colonial experiences. Ethnicity and religions are mixed (a Malay is one who professes Islam and behaves like a Malay). Islam is the state’s religion while ambiguously allowing religious freedom.
Political parties were constructed along ethnic lines. In response to the Malay-Chinese riots of 1969, The National Front conducted affirmative action through NEP (National Economic Plan) to equalize “backward Malays” so that they could catch up with the Chinese and other educated classes. Malays enjoy constitutional advantages over non-
At the same time, Islam remains revivalist, but the UMNO seeks to modernize its character (as in Islam Hadhari). Now the government is promoting OneMalaysia, but tensions remain between ethnicity, religion and citizenship. Progressive movements, such as Sisters in Islam, attempt to be critical of both UMNO and PAS Islamization projects. Others are critical of multiculturalism in the state. In Malaysia, multiculturalism is almost always framed along ethnic lines, with class, gender and religion sometimes present to complicate things.
In Singapore, multiculturalism is defined and promoted in the city-state through a decidedly secular constitution, although religious and communal factors have become increasingly realized by the predominantly Chinese ruling party. Languages (Malay, Chinese, Tamil, English) constitute the primary marker of multicultural policy. The state’s housing policy aims to mix all ethnic groups, but all these are brought into a wider “national, Singaporean culture”. The question “Chinese First” or “Singaporean First” comes to the fore.
The People Action’s Party (PAP)’s ruling prefers “ideological consensus” to boost economic pragmatism, through such policies as “the Religious Harmony Act” (1990), forbidding the use of religion for political ends with penalties for “extremism”, and later through the promotion of basic “Religious Knowledge” (RK) allowing citizens to choose (from seven religions).
These religious policies had the goal of creating interracial harmony. In later developments, realizing the unintended consequences of religious differences in the public sphere, the National Ideology Committee created “shared values”: nation above society, society above self.
Some argue that the shared values are Asian/Eastern values, in opposition to Western values, although such values remain capitalistic. The question remains a tension between individualism and communalism, between West and East, and between multiculturalism and national cohesion.
Thus, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore are highly diverse nations, ethnically, linguistically, religiously, culturally, socially, and politically, but they are diverse in different ways and cope with diversity in different ways.
Multiculturalism is a new way of understanding culture. Culture is not static, so multiculturalism should not imply those diverse cultures are fixed. “Multiculturalism”, as William Connoly states, “embodies within itself a quarrel between the national protection of diverse cultural minorities in the same territory and the pluralization of multiple possibilities of being within and across states.”
There is tension between multiculturalism and universal humanism, between what Charles Taylor calls “Politics of Recognition”, emphasizing the unique identity of an individual or a group (against assimilation), and “Politics of Universalism”, emphasizing the equal dignity of all citizens (no first-class no second-class citizens).
Does the belief that all human beings have dignity necessarily mean that particular cultural identities are suppressed or negated? Can people reconcile between shared values and particular values?
Empirical studies could be important to assess if multicultural discourses and practices are based on solid social premises, not faulty ones. Does support for ethnic diversity foster individual well-being and inter-ethnic cohesion or does it foster tension and conflict? Is multiculturalism understood as the imposition of some cultures on others? Can different peoples have a shared goal of multiculturalism? Is it for the sake of recognition of the diverse values and expressions for their own sake or for the enhancement of the quality of life and learning among all? Does multiculturalism reinforce racial superiority, religious supremacy, and ethno-triumphalism?
Strategies, structural and cultural, can be formulated in each country and they could learn from each other to see the best practices of multiculturalism, considering both commonalities and differences. Multiculturalism operates in both private and public spheres (family, the state, civil society, including NGOs, media and learning institutions).
Multiculturalism concerns how the self relates to others, real or imagined. As an approach, multiculturalism implies willingness to accept possible ways of being and becoming, regardless of ethnicity, race, sexuality, gender and religion, in efforts at creating respectful and critical societies.