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Multi-Culturalism: The Opposite of Nationalism??

Multi-Culturalism: The Opposite of Nationalism?
Khairil Ahmad
Hello. We’re back on the Malaysia campus of Nottingham University. I’m joined again by Khairil Ahmad, who you met in week one. Thanks for joining us again. Thanks for having me. So what we want to build on is the earlier discussion of Islam and freedom but now in the context of this week’s theme of community. And there’s something really interesting here about Malaysia, which is not just a predominantly Muslim society but also an emphatically multicultural society with very significant other ethnic and religious groups. Most notably, ethnically Chinese people– about the third of the population. So Khairil, if I could ask you about that– multiculturalism is kind of integral to the fabric of Malaysia.
We in the west often think of it as the opposite of a kind of exclusionary nationalism. So you have either a sort of ethnically homogeneous thing that rejects all foreign cultural influences or you have this lovely, modern multiculturalism. But it’s not that new in Malaysia. So how does it actually work here? It’s indeed not new in Malaysia. It’s partly colonial heritage of Malaysia. And there is a Malaysian model of multiculturalism.
But it’s not a model which you would typically link with ideas of progress, for example, or ideas of democracy, because, and this is a key term for the Malaysian model, it’s always been about managing the multicultural population so as to make sure that some degree of social harmony is maintained and tensions and conflicts are avoided. So if this has to come at the expense of certain democratic rights or human rights as we understand it today, then the approach has been, so be it. Because the concern thus far has been that social harmony is the most important thing.
And the key to this is to make sure that the groups– all the different groups within this multicultural context– have their interests fulfilled. And that’s why the idea of managing is such an important feature of Malaysia’s multiculturalism. So I’m wondering if that’s changing at all. So there’s a whole bunch of rules and regulations that define these groups separately and to some extent even treat them separately. But as Malaysian society is modernising, we’ve seen rapid industrialisation, massive urbanisation in the last few decades. Is there a kind of confluence of lifestyles that are becoming more secular, more consumerist, that also means that these boundaries between these identities are becoming more fluid? Well, traditionally– and Malaysia is a relatively new country.
It got its independence in 1957. But what’s been happening is that the different groups in Malaysia have been defined in somewhat static terms. And this can be seen even in schools, where children are more or less told that there are certain features that would define the different groups. So I’ll give an example here. The Malays are the majority in Malaysia. And the Malay community in Malaysia also has this unique situation where they are constitutionally ascribed as also being Muslims in Malaysia. So it could well be possible that people assume that because Malays are Muslim, then only Malays are Muslims in Malaysia, when that’s not the fact on the ground.
The reality is that there are Muslims who come also from other ethnic groups. And this is the same with other ethnic groups as well, within which there are members who follow different faith, for example. You’re right that Malaysia has gone through this period of rapid industrialisation. And typically, we would think that this would result in novel and innovative ways through which people think of their identities. But one thing that I should also highlight here is that, politically, Malaysia– the tone of its politics has always been set by a very ethnicised model of politics. And here is where ethnic and racial interests still take a very important position in the way people express their demands.
We’ve seen the change in government in 2018. And it’s really exciting. It’s the first time in Malaysia’s history. And it’s really exciting to see where this takes the country to. But for the most part of its history, ethnic politics has always been central in the way demands are expressed. And that’s always been the predicament to a more progressive model of multiculturalism. We can put it that way. Thank you. Really interesting. Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts. And I think they raised broader questions for us about what actually is the relationship between modernity and multiculturalism. What is the relationship between identity politics, ethnic identity politics, and multiculturalism– not just its association with nationalism.
We’d love to now widen out this discussion and hear from the different political cultural context which you’re coming from, sharing your thoughts with other learners on how this plays out in your countries. Thank you very much. Looking forward to the debate.

In this discussion with Maiken, Khairil Ahmad, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia Campus, builds on his earlier discussion of Islam and Freedom, now addressing the theme of community.

In the West, we often think of multi-culturalism as the opposite of an exclusionary nationalism, which recognises as full citizens only those who shared in the dominant culture, religion, and “ethnicity”. But the example of Malaysia explored here suggested that a constitutional arrangement based on multiple identity groups does not necessarily create a more open society: it can also cement “identity politics”, limiting people’s own choices about who they want to be, and which community they want to be part of.

Think about the Malaysian model of multi-culturalism discussed here: is it totally unique to that country, or does it have more general implications? How does this sort of arrangement connect to ideas of progress and democracy? What is the relationship between modernity and multi-culturalism? Please share your thoughts; and as always, we’d be particularly interested to hear from learners from different countries!

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