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Vol. 9, No. 3, Nuurrianti Jalli and Yearry Panji Setianto


Contents>> Vol. 9, No. 3

Revisiting Transnational Media Flow in Nusantara: Cross-border Content Broadcasting in Indonesia and Malaysia

Nuurrianti Jalli* and Yearry Panji Setianto**

*Department of Languages, Literature, and Communication Studies, Northern State University, 1200 S Jay St, Aberdeen, South Dakota, 57401, The United States of America
Corresponding author’s e-mail: nuurrianti.jalli[at]
**Departemen Ilmu Komunikasi, Universitas Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa, Jl. Raya Jakarta Km 4 Pakupatan Kota Serang Provinsi Banten, Indonesia

DOI: 10.20495/seas.9.3_413

Previous studies on transnational media have emphasized transnational media organizations and tended to ignore the role of cross-border content, especially in a non-Western context. This study aims to fill theoretical gaps within this scholarship by providing an analysis of the Southeast Asian media sphere, focusing on Indonesia and Malaysia in a historical context—transnational media flow before 2010. The two neighboring nations of Indonesia and Malaysia have many things in common, from culture to language and religion. This study not only explores similarities in the reception and appropriation of transnational content in both countries but also investigates why, to some extent, each had a different attitude toward content produced by the other. It also looks at how governments in these two nations control the flow of transnational media content. Focusing on broadcast media, the study finds that cross-border media flow between Indonesia and Malaysia was made possible primarily in two ways: (1) illicit or unintended media exchange, and (2) legal and intended media exchange. Illicit media exchange was enabled through the use of satellite dishes and antennae near state borders, as well as piracy. Legal and intended media exchange was enabled through state collaboration and the purchase of media rights; both governments also utilized several bodies of laws to assist in controlling transnational media content. Based on our analysis, there is a path of transnational media exchange between these two countries. We also found Malaysians to be more accepting of Indonesian content than vice versa.

Keywords: Nusantara, Indonesia, Malaysia, transnational media, cross-border content, broadcast media


The effect of globalization on national media systems has encouraged various countries to reconsider the effectiveness of their media policy. While the presence of foreign media content is not new for most nations, the intrusion of material produced by other countries has long been considered a national threat (Crofts Wiley 2004; Cohen 2008). This is more so in states that aim to protect their national identities from the infiltration of foreign cultures, which are viewed as unsuitable for local audiences, via imported media content. Today, with the proliferation of the Internet, Indonesia and Malaysia are expressing concerns over the media flow from foreign countries through global channels such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Viu, among others. Leaders in Malaysia and Indonesia have raised concerns over the potential impact of loosely regulated media content on local cultural and religious values, especially content related to LGBTQA+, violence, and leftist political ideologies (Anton Hermansyah 2016; Kelion 2016; Katrina 2019).

Notwithstanding the current reality, where global media companies like Netflix have already infiltrated Malaysia and Indonesia through the Internet, this paper aims to provide a historical overview of transnational content in both countries before 2010. Since previous studies on transnational media have emphasized transnational media organizations and tended to ignore the role of cross-border content (Esser and Strömbäck 2012), this paper hopes to fill this theoretical gap by providing data focusing on these two nations. More data on this topic will help to cross-examine the significance of country and regional studies from the perspective of global communication and media studies (Flew and Waisbord 2015). Additionally, this research hopes to assist in providing insights into prognosticating reactions from both governments to trends in global media consumption, based on policies implemented by both countries in the past decade.

The relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia has always been defined based on the idea of serumpun (kinship), the sharing of racial and religious affinity (Islam), linguistic similarity, geographical proximity in the Malay Archipelago (or Nusantara), and a shared history (Khalid and Yacob 2012). Yet the two countries have adopted restrictive media policies toward transnational/foreign media content from each other—along with other countries in the region. Cross-border flow of media content eventually became a political debate in Indonesia and Malaysia (Mohamad Rizal 2010), but what influenced the laws and regulations put in place to deal with this issue remains unanswered. Thus, we argue that comparing the media regulations between Indonesia and Malaysia would further explain what factors determined their decisions in media policy-making processes, especially their critical stance toward Western media content. We also look at the media exchange between Indonesia and Malaysia and investigate the channels of transnational media in these two states in the decades up to 2010. Finally, this study also explores factors influencing the acceptance of cross-border media content in both countries.

For this study we used a historical method, focusing on the comparison of media policies in Indonesia and Malaysia and how these countries developed their strategy on the flow of transnational media content. Among the secondary data we used were past publications, government reports, as well as online databases. This paper aims to answer three research questions: (1) How was the practice of transnational media content flow in Indonesia and Malaysia before 2010? (2) How did the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia control transnational media content? (3) What factors influenced the acceptance of transnational media content in both countries? The discussion is focused on broadcast media before 2010. It is essential to also understand that, despite the objectives, this paper does not aim to measure the acceptance level of media content in Malaysia and Indonesia. We aim to provide insights on matters related to the practice of transnational media flow and government approaches to cross-border content, and to explore potential factors influencing the acceptance of transnational media content in both countries.

Globalization and Transnational Media

With globalization, societies are becoming more transnational. Globalization also creates problems that cannot be handled at the level of nation-states, and this forces governments to think at the supranational level (Kearney 1995). Globalization can be illustrated by the increasing cross-border activities, from interactions among people from different parts of the world through social media platforms to people in different locations enjoying similar content provided by global media-services providers like Netflix. While these transnational phenomena cannot be simplified as logical consequences of the increasing popularity of global media widely accessed by global audiences, it is somewhat difficult to diminish the impact of media on the advancement of globalization. As a result, the transnational flow of media content can also be seen as one of the effects of globalization.

Edward Herman and Robert McChesney (2004) explained that significant changes are taking place within society and in our relationship with media due to the influence of global media. These changes include increasing cross-border flows of media content as well as a growing number of transnational media organizations. However, the authors also warned of the negative consequences of global media, mainly an increase in commercialization and centralized control over media. On the one hand, thanks to the globalization of media, many people in underdeveloped countries can easily watch high-quality programs produced by television stations in developed nations. On the other hand, the infiltration of transnational media content, mostly from Western countries, is seen as a threat to national cultures. Even the dominance of news content from the Western world through global media into Third World countries like Malaysia and Indonesia has often been perceived as an attack on the free flow of information (McBride 1980). Additionally, within the perspective of cultural imperialism, the international flow of communication is seen as favoring industrialized nations and threatening sociocultural values of developing countries (McBride 1980; Kraidy 2002). In some states, foreign television programs have been accused of promoting consumerism (Paek and Pan 2004). Even though policy makers in different countries have varying attitudes toward the presence of global media, governments in many developing nations tend to exhibit hostility toward unwanted transnational media content.

One of the most interesting debates concerning the threat of global media and transnational flows of communication took place during the UNESCO meeting in Kenya in 1973. During the initiation of the New World Information and Communication Order, a debate session hosted at the UNESCO meeting, some countries argued over whether the advancement of transnational media flows would be positive. According to Marwan Kraidy (2002), Western countries, which had more advanced media industries, argued that the free flow of information should be seen as positive, while the other nations did not agree and were afraid that liberalization of the flow of information would benefit only Western countries (McBride 1980). Even today it is argued that there is an imbalance in the transnational flow of information, especially since media content tends to flow from developed nations to developing ones.

There have been several attempts to define the term “transnational media.” For example, Leo Gher and Kiran Bharthapudi (2004) defined it as “communication, information or entertainment that crosses international borders without the regulatory constraints normally associated with electronic media.” Other scholars have explained the different types of transnational media. Michael Brüggemann and Hagen Schulz-Forberg (2009) categorized it into four types: (1) national media that has a cross-border mission, (2) international media, (3) pan-regional media, and (4) global media as illustrated in Table 1.


Table 1 Types of Transnational Media



Diplomatic Relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia

The diplomatic relationship between Malaysia and Indonesia has existed for several decades, since the time of Malaya’s independence in 1957 (Muhammad 1964; Malaysia, Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2015). However, this relationship has not always been stable and is bittersweet. When Malaysia was formed (through the amalgamation of the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah, and Sarawak) in 1963, Indonesia, led by President Sukarno, was not happy with the idea. The Indonesian government’s opposition to the formation of Malaysia led to a violent conflict, better known as Konfrontasi, that lasted three years—1963–66. According to James Mackie (1974), this diplomatic dispute was an undeclared war, with most of the action occurring at the border between Indonesia and East Malaysia in Borneo; it included restrained and isolated combats and was most likely driven by Sukarno’s political purposes. However, Konfrontasi ended with Indonesia finally acknowledging the formation of Malaysia.

In more recent times, tensions between these two countries expanded to issues of territorial boundaries, Indonesian illegal immigrants, ill treatment of Indonesian workers in Malaysia, human trafficking, and the infamous annual forest fires in Indonesia that resulted in a terrible haze over Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore for more than a decade from the mid-1990s (Kanapathy 2006; Kompas 2007 in Heryanto 2008; Killias 2010; Elias 2013). There were also several disputes between these countries over ownership of items of cultural heritage, such as the Pendet dance, folk songs like “Rasa Sayang” and “Terang Bulan,” and wayang kulit shadow puppetry (Chong 2012). However, despite the endless conflicts between these two countries, governments on both sides worked hard to arrive at a better understanding and a more stable diplomatic relationship. This could be seen through the efforts by both governments to strengthen bilateral ties. In 2018, during a diplomatic visit to Indonesia by Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, he and Indonesian President Joko Widodo pledged to improve the relationship between their countries and focus on resolving outstanding border issues, enhancing protection and welfare for migrant workers, and potentially reviving the old plan of an ASEAN car project (Chan 2018).

Media in Indonesia and Malaysia

As in many Southeast Asian countries, the broadcasting system in Indonesia was introduced during the colonial period. Under Dutch colonial rule, radio was used to relay messages from the Netherlands to the Dutch East Indies as well as provide entertainment for colonial elites (Kitley 2014). When Japan took over, radio became a propaganda tool for the colonizers, with Japanese programs delivered to local audiences. When Indonesia gained its independence in 1945, radio eventually became the primary tool to broadcast nationalistic and revolutionary messages around the country. Once the national radio system became more established, the Indonesian government set up a national television network, Televisi Republik Indonesia (TVRI), in August 1962 through the Decree of the Minister of Information No. 20/1961. The initial reason for this was that Sukarno, the Indonesian president at the time, wanted to deliver the image of Indonesia as a modern country to the whole region (Kitley 2003). As the host of the Asian Games in 1962, Indonesia wanted to broadcast this sporting event to other Asian countries transnationally. However, after the Asian Games TVRI suffered a lack of funding, which resulted in the discontinuation of the network (Kitley 2014). Consequently, TVRI was overwhelmed by American television programs: it was much cheaper to broadcast those than to produce local programs.

Indonesia’s second president, Suharto, who overthrew Sukarno in 1965, enjoyed his control over the country’s broadcasting system. He exercised powerful control over the media in general, mainly through “licensing mechanism, media ownership regulation, paper distribution, media associations, Press Council membership and so on” (Agus Sudibyo and Patria 2013, 258). He prohibited broadcast media from delivering political messages, which in turn encouraged the growing popularity of entertainment content. Music, both local and Western, dominated radio shows at that time. While Suharto still allowed national television to broadcast limited transnational programs, such as American TV shows, he prohibited TVRI from airing advertisements over concerns that television commercials might promote consumerism (Ade Armando 2011). The Indonesian government tended to be permissive with imported programs due to business reasons. However, on some occasions government officials still warned the public not to be influenced by Western cultures that were promoted through foreign television programs.

Indonesia’s first private television network, Rajawali Citra Televisi Indonesia (RCTI), was introduced in the late 1980s. One of the reasons why Suharto permitted a private television network was to distract Indonesian viewers from foreign broadcasting (Ade Armando 2011). It seems that the increasing use of satellite dishes at that time encouraged local audiences to access international broadcasts illegally. Through shared signals from a satellite dish, even people in a small village could watch overseas television programs that were not available on local broadcasting channels. Unable to prohibit the use of satellite dishes, the government issued an “open skies” policy and legalized the use of parabola satellites, but many people still used them to access foreign channels (Sen and Hill 2006). Therefore, rather than further control the use of satellite dishes, which was seen as impractical, the government tried to attract local audiences by introducing private television channels.

The strict Suharto government finally fell after the countrywide Reformasi protest movement in 1998. In the aftermath of Suharto’s defeat there was media liberalization, which allowed the growth of press freedom and creativity (Kakiailatu 2007). Films that were deemed as sensitive or critical of the government were publicly broadcast, and various new creative products could be shared with international audiences. However, some critics argued that although there were improvements in terms of cultural expression, some media content was still heavily censored (Sen and Hill 2006), such as pornography, extreme violence, and content deemed too critical of the Indonesian government or its policies.

In Malaysia, too, the media was tightly controlled by the ruling power. The government or its affiliated companies owned broadcasting stations, especially during the Barisan Nasional (BN) government and its predecessor Parti Perikatan government from the country’s independence in 1957 until 2018. This resulted in minimal media freedom in the country and not much variety in media content available to the public (Kim 2001; McDaniel 2002; Mohd Sani 2004; George 2006; Iga 2012; Willnat et al. 2013). It also led to media monopoly. In addition to free-to-air (public) channels such as RTM1, RTM2 (operated by the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia), TV3, NTV7, 8TV, and TV9 (operated by the government-affiliated Media Prima Berhad), the other media giant in the country was—and is—the sole satellite television service provider, Astro, owned by Astro Malaysia Holdings Berhad. Unlike free-to-air channels, Astro satellite service offers 170 television channels and 20 radio stations that include all free-to-air channels along with international channels such as HBO, Cinemax, and Fox (Astro 2019).

Over the years Astro has received multiple criticisms not only from subscribers but also from local politicians, even though it provides so many interesting channels (Khairil Ashraf 2014).1) Subscribers’ complaints usually concern what they consider unnecessary fees for the average service that Astro provides, with constant disruptions especially during the monsoon season. Other complaints involve excessive advertising—showing Astro’s obvious capitalistic motives rather than a desire to provide excellent service to customers. Despite the negative feedback about Astro since it began broadcasting in 1996, the satellite service provider has never had serious competition in the market. With strong demand for a variety of channels, the people have only one legal option for satellite service—although many, especially in the rural areas, have opted to purchase unregistered illegal satellite dishes. Using such satellite dishes, they can receive multiple channels from outside the country without having to pay monthly fees; plus the content is not filtered by any government body, which allows users to enjoy original uncensored content.

Malaysia has always been strict when it comes to filtering media content from foreign countries, particularly content originating and produced in Western nations. Media content that is seen as inappropriate, especially opposing Eastern and Islamic cultures and values, is banned from public viewing. The Film Censorship Board of Malaysia under the Ministry of Home Affairs plays a vital role in deciding what content can be broadcast in the Malaysian media. Film censorship laws, specifically the Film Censorship Act 2002,2) not only filter and oversee exported content but also oversee the production and showing of local films (Wan Mahmud et al. 2009). According to Wan Amizah Wan Mahmud (2008), the censorship system in Malaysia was not initially created by the Malaysian government per se but was one of the effects of British colonization. The British, according to Paul O’Higgins (1972), introduced such a policy in order to uphold and defend their dignity as masters in the occupied territory—which at the same time instilled the idea of censorship among local leaders as one of the ways to maintain their own status as the highest class in the societal hierarchy. It is believed that the main legacy of the British Empire in the field of media was not the craft of producing films, but the outline of the censorship system (Van der Heide 2002), which can still be seen today. It is also important to note that the Censorship Board reviews not only films but also trailers, newsreels, posters, advertisements, and short comedy films (Wan Mahmud et al. 2009). Hence, in order for local and international producers to have their content nationally broadcast, it is crucial for them to follow the guidelines provided by the Censorship Board.3) If they fail to follow instructions, their content is banned from national broadcasting; and extreme content can also be charged under the Film Censorship Act (2002). Some of the media laws in Indonesia and Malaysia that could be used to oversee transnational media content can be referred to in Table 2 below.


Table 2 Media Laws in Indonesia and Malaysia that Could Be Used to Oversee Transnational Media Content*



Although Indonesia’s censorship laws are not as strict as Malaysia’s, Indonesia also pays careful attention to content that is considered to be against Islamic values. For instance, in 2014 both countries banned the Hollywood film Noah claiming it went against Islamic beliefs (Nathan 2014). With Islam being the official religion in both countries, the Malaysian and Indonesian governments pay extra attention to any content that can affect Islamic values. In 2019 an Indonesian filmmaker, Garin Nugroho, received death threats for his film Memories of My Body, which portrays a male dancer exploring his sexuality and gender identity. In Indonesia there is no specific law to oversee content related to the LGBTQA+ community except in Acheh. However, for the majority Muslim population in Indonesia, such “Western” content is not acceptable (Malay Mail, May 11, 2019).

Transnational Media Flow: Indonesia and Malaysia

Historically, in many countries uncontrolled media flow has been viewed as a threat to national sovereignty and has shaped media policies (Hardt and Negri 2001; Flew 2012). Information flow from developed countries into Third World countries threatens the latter as foreign media content effectively surpasses the jurisdiction and authority of nation-states, eventually challenging the notion of national sovereignty and its effectiveness. Therefore, according to scholars like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, government and politics “come to be completely integrated into the system of transnational command” (Hardt and Negri 2001, 307). In this section, we highlight some examples of how media content flows between Indonesia and Malaysia, with a specific focus on broadcast materials such as films, TV dramas, radio, and music.

Transnational media content flows between Malaysia and Indonesia mainly through two modes of transmission: (1) illicit or unintended media exchange, including, especially at the national borders, the availability of illegal satellite dishes and DVD dealerships to accommodate local demand for foreign content; and (2) legal and intended media exchange (refer to Fig. 1). The intended media exchange discussed here focuses on content from Malaysia and the island of Java, where the Indonesian capital—Jakarta—is located and extensive use of the official Bahasa Indonesia rather than the Javanese language is recorded (Poedjosoedarmo 2006). Due to the diversity of languages in the Indonesian archipelago (Goebel 2013; 2016), media consumption in the country also varies (Sen and Hill 2006). Most media companies and government agencies are located in Java, but there are some also in Bali and Sumatra (Nugroho et al. 2012).



Fig. 1 Transnational Media Flow in Indonesia and Malaysia


In Indonesia and Malaysia, one of the catalysts facilitating transnational media content was satellite TV. With limited TV channels provided by the state, the use of satellite dishes was deemed necessary to increase options for media content. However, for many Indonesians and Malaysians, especially in the 1990s, satellite dishes were considered a luxury. Nonetheless, transnational satellite TV was a concern for both governments since content from the Western world was deemed a threat to the Asian values upheld by both nations (McDaniel 2002). For example, the introduction of Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV in 1991 was received differently by audiences and governments in Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Many media policies were set up to handle the transnational flow of media content enabled by this new media technology.

The common view of upholding Asian values was not exclusive to Indonesia and Malaysia. In many other Southeast Asian countries with authoritarian regimes, the discourse on media policies was also centralized in censorship.4) Censorship was deemed necessary to prevent unwanted foreign media content. In the late 1990s, using the argument of preserving Asian values, Southeast Asian governments’ efforts to maintain censorship—to protect the public from “unsuitable” materials—faced an unlikely dilemma (McDaniel 2002). In Malaysia, for example, thanks to advanced media technologies—from satellite dishes to videocassettes—people living near the national borders in particular could easily access media content from neighboring countries without having to be concerned with the government’s censorship policy (McDaniel 2002). Why government policies concerning the cross-border flow of media content were ineffective during that time is yet to be fully understood.

Radio and Music

The history of the infiltration of Malaysian media content into Indonesia can be traced back to the increasing popularity of radio broadcasts in both countries in the post-independence period. Due to geographical proximity, broadcast signals from Malaysia are relatively easily received by Indonesian audiences, and vice versa. As a result, it is common for Indonesian listeners to tune into Malaysian radio stations. In West Kalimantan, for example, 18 Malaysian radio channels—including Muzik FM, TraXX FM, Klasik Nasional FM, Hot FM, Hitz FM, ERA (formerly Era FM), and Cats FM—are available for free to Indonesians living near the Malaysian border. To attract Indonesian listeners, Malaysian radio plays Indonesian pop songs.

In comparing the Malaysian music industry to the Indonesian one, it is safe to say that the latter is more advanced and prominent than the former (Heryanto 2008). Indonesian bands such as Peterpan, Sheila on 7, and Cokelat, among others, are well known among Malaysians. And in 2007, instead of choosing a local Malaysian band, Celcom—Malaysia’s largest and oldest telecommunications company—officially appointed Indonesia’s best-known music group, Peterpan, as the company’s new “power icon” as part of its marketing strategy (Heryanto 2008). Malaysia’s warm reception of Indonesian music is not recent: it goes back several decades to the success of artists such as Titiek Puspa, Lilis Suryani, and Vina Panduwinata (Sartono 2007, quoted in Heryanto 2008). In contrast to the success of Indonesian musicians in Malaysia, only a few Malaysian artists—such as Search, Siti Nurhaliza, and Sheila Majid—have managed to penetrate the Indonesian music industry (Tribune News, July 2, 2013).

The Indonesian and Malaysian governments have tried to cooperate in making collaborative broadcasts (McDaniel 1994). In the case of radio, Radio Republik Indonesia (RRI) has long collaborated with Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM) in broadcasting programs to reach audiences in both countries. One of the most famous such programs was Titian Muhibah (Bridge of harmony), broadcasting Indonesian and Malaysian songs to listeners in both countries. Similar programs were later introduced on television; TVRI broadcast a program with the same name in the 1990s. The television program was discontinued after Suharto resigned and the bilateral relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia became troublesome. In 2013 RRI made an unsuccessful attempt to work with RTM to produce a similar show, with the primary aim being to reach out to audiences living near the national borders of these neighboring nations, including areas like Pontianak, Sintang, Entikong, and Sarawak (Tribune News, July 2, 2013). Many of the programs co-produced by RRI and RTM were cultural shows, and one of them—Bermukun Borneo—continued until 2019. Intentional or legal transnational flows of media content were considered inconsistent and profoundly influenced by the internal political conditions in each country as well as the bilateral relationship between the two countries.

TV Dramas and Films

Unlike scholarly articles on the development of Indonesian cinema, little has been written about the history of Malaysian cinema (White 1996). Scholars have suggested that Indonesian media content has long been accepted by the Malaysian public (Van der Heide 2002; Heryanto 2008). This can be traced all the way back to the 1930s through the overwhelming popularity of media content such as the film Terang Boelan (Bright moon) in Malaya and Singapore. The success of Terang Boelan inspired the production of Malay films. This could be seen through the establishment of an Indonesian film house in Singapore in 1938 to cater to local demand for Malay media content (Norman Yusoff 2019). The popularity of Terang Boelan also inspired Shaw Brothers in Singapore to set up Malay Film Productions, which became one of the successful film companies in the region.

According to William van der Heide (2002), the popularity of the Malayan movie actor P. Ramlee in the 1950s beyond the Peninsula was regarded as having the potential to boost the export of Malayan movies to Indonesia. But Indonesia reacted negatively by imposing a strict protectionist policy—demanding that three Indonesian films be screened in the Peninsula for every Malayan movie exported to Indonesia—which resulted in a limited number of Malayan films being circulated in Indonesia (Latif 1989). Despite little success, some strategies, such as inviting Indonesian directors and actors to produce Malayan movies, were used to ensure the smooth distribution of Malayan films in Indonesia (Alauddin 1992).

The introduction of television in the early 1960s also contributed to the declining popularity of Malaysian movies among local audiences. Meanwhile, due to the technical superiority of Indonesian films, Malaysian viewers became more interested in their neighboring country’s films. Providing Malaysian audiences with Malay-language content, Indonesian movies of various genres—from action to dangdut musicals—became more popular in the 1970s (Sirat 1992). Even Perfima—the film company set up by P. Ramlee and a few others—initially imported popular Indonesian films before it produced local content (Van der Heide 2002).

In the 1980s Indonesian films could be accessed via state-owned channels operated by RTM, through programs such as Tayangan Gambar Indonesia (Indonesian film show) on TV1. At the same time, locally produced media content was shown on programs such as Tayangan Gambar Melayu (Malay film show). Due to the lack of local media products, RTM had to purchase rights to Indonesian films for RM3,000–5,000 from local distributors. The cost to purchase Indonesian content was considered reasonable to fill in the vacant slots on RTM TV channels. The same approach was taken by TV3, a private TV channel that was established in 1983 (Abdul Wahab et al. 2013). TV3 at that time, aware of the trend, also featured Indonesian films alternately with Malay films through its program Malindo Theater (Norman Yusoff 2019).

In the early 2000s, some of the Indonesian films popular in Malaysia were Ada Apa Dengan Cinta (What’s up with love, 2002), Eiffel I’m in Love (2003), Heart (2006), and Ayat-Ayat Cinta (Verses of love, 2008). Ada Apa Dengan Cinta, which was released in Malaysia in 2003, received positive feedback, especially from young adults. Observers of the local art scene posited that the film contributed to the emergence of a subculture centralized in Indonesian poetry in Malaysia. In 2016 a prequel of the movie, Ada Apa Dengan Cinta 2, was released in the Malaysian market, 13 years after the release of its predecessor. Recorded as the highest-grossing Indonesian movie in Malaysia, Ada Apa Dengan Cinta 2 reaped more than RM2.5 million in box office takings within a week and surpassed RM4 million revenue after its 12th day of screening (Chua 2016a; 2016b).

Indonesian TV dramas, better known as sinetrons, also became popular in Malaysia. According to Josscy Aartsen (2011), the popularity of Indonesian media content as an official import to Malaysia was initially due to cheaper copyrights compared to Western media content, especially during the financial crisis in the 1990s. The overwhelming acceptance of Indonesian sinetrons led to the establishment of exclusive slots on Malaysian TV networks. For example, in 2006 TV9—a channel under Media Prima, one of the largest media agencies in Malaysia—dedicated a daily slot to broadcast Indonesian TV dramas (Abdul Wahab et al. 2013). This was seen as an effort to compete with other TV stations that were also actively broadcasting Indonesian sinetrons. Some Indonesian dramas were hugely popular among Malaysian viewers: for example, Kiamat Sudah Dekat (The end is near, 2003) had a viewership of over 1 million. And Mutiara Hari (Pearl of the day), which was initially released on SCTV in Indonesia in 2005, had a viewership of 1.6 million on TV9 (Abdul Wahab et al. 2013). Tabulated in Table 3 above are some of the Indonesian sinetrons and films broadcasted in Malaysia over the years.


Table 3 Some Indonesian Sinetrons and Films in Malaysia



Unlike the penetration of Indonesian films into Malaysian media, Malaysian media content was not well received in Indonesia (Van der Heide 2002). This could have been due to a few factors, such as the plethora of choices within Indonesia and slower development of the entertainment industry in Malaysia. According to Khairi Ahmad (1988, 9), at least in the 1980s, Indonesian audiences found that Malaysian films were not as attractive as local content or other foreign films. Some Malaysian films that succeeded in breaking into the Indonesian market were those by P. Ramlee, such as Seniman Bujang Lapok (The three bachelor artists), Nujum Pak Belalang (Pak Belalang the necromancer), Bakti (Services), among others (Khairi Ahmad 1988). Bakti, which was released in 1950, received a particularly overwhelming response from the Indonesian public due to the widespread publicity provided by newspapers in Singapore such as Utusan Melayu, Utusan Zaman, and Mastika (Sahidan Jaafar 2019; Abdullah Hussain 2003):

The Oranje Theater was a first-class stage that usually showed only big movies from the West. At the time the film Bakti was aired on the Oranje Medan Medan stage in the 1950s, some of the main streets around the theater were jammed with vehicles and humans. (Abdullah Hussain 2003, 17)

Other than films by P. Ramlee, in the 1990s other films also managed to break into the Indonesian market. One was Fenomena (Phenomenon). The success of this film was catalyzed by the popularity of the lead actor, Amy Search, who was also a member of the popular Malaysian rock band Search. In 1989, a year before the film was released in the Indonesian market, the rock band released its album Fenomena, which received overwhelming support from Indonesian audiences—over 2 million copies were sold (Raja 2017).

Various efforts to co-produce movies between the two countries were initiated after the formation of ASEAN in 1967, but they materialized only in the late 1980s. Eventually several films were produced, including the popular Irisan-Irisan Hati (Shreds of the heart) (Lim 1989). There were also successful attempts by filmmakers to incorporate celebrities from Indonesia and Malaysia in their films. For instance, Isabella (1990) was directed by the Indonesian director Marwan Alkatiri and featured the Malaysian actor Amy Search and Indonesian actor Nia Zulkarnain. Other collaborative films included Gadis Hitam Putih (The black and white woman, 1986), directed by Wahyu Sihombing, and Gelora Cinta (The surge of love, 1992) by Aziz Sattar (Norman Yusoff 2019). While such collaboration was applauded by the Malaysian film industry, it gained little interest from its Indonesian counterpart (Said 1991).

Unlike successful Indonesian sinetrons in Malaysia, only a small number of Malaysian TV shows managed to penetrate the Indonesian market. In the late 1980s there were only two notable Malaysian television shows popular in Indonesia: the soap opera Primadona (Primadonna, 1989) and the variety show Titian Muhibah (1990). One of the best contemporary examples of Malaysian media content popular in Indonesia is the animation series Upin & Ipin, by Les’ Copaque Production. The children’s show has been broadcast on the Indonesian TV channel MNCTV since 2007.

Media Piracy in Indonesia and Malaysia

Audiences in both countries also enjoyed relatively easy access to transnational media content through pirated media. In Indonesia, for example, the government found it difficult to eliminate media piracy. The development of videocassettes in the 1980s is viewed as having kickstarted media piracy in Indonesia (Rosihan Anwar 1988). Locals made copies of videocassettes in order to meet the demand for a variety of films without having to spend much money going to the cinema. The booming piracy business led to a decline in the production of Indonesian movies in the early 1980s (Rosihan Anwar 1988). New films were recorded as soon as they were available in theatres, and videocassettes of the films were promptly distributed by video rental shops. Many of the recordings were made illegally and disseminated without obtaining video rights from the producers. Efforts were made by the Indonesian government to eliminate piracy and exert more control, but no significant success was achieved (Khairi Ahmad 1988).

In the 1990s, pirated media content in most Southeast Asian countries was distributed via counterfeit VCDs or DVDs due to the lack of access to online media. Even though pirated media is illegal in Indonesia, 90 percent of the VCDs distributed in the market were pirated copies (Van Heeren 2012). Most pirated media offers relatively cheap access to transnational content. Hollywood box office movies were “often for sale on the streets before they even premiere in local theaters” (Baumgärtel 2007, 53). Pirated VCDs and DVDs also offered pornographic materials, Western music albums, and computer software and games. The only regulation that could be used to eradicate the practice of media piracy was Copyright Law No. 28/2014. However, the issue was more law enforcement than regulation.

Following the increasing penetration of the Internet in Indonesia, this newest medium has provided an alternative way for Indonesians to access transnational content. While it is true that a variety of media content from many countries is now easily available to Internet users in Indonesia, there is also a tendency to utilize this relatively cheap medium to access and distribute pirated media content. Even though the government tried to minimize online piracy through the implementation of Information and Electronic Transaction Law No. 11/2008, the government’s efforts to prevent the distribution of online pirated content seemed to focus mainly on blocking pornographic websites.

Even though censorship has been in place in Malaysia since the country’s independence in 1957, citizens can bypass bans through illegal Internet downloads. Banned media content can also be purchased from pirated VCD/DVD dealers (Yow 2015). Thus, it is not surprising that even though the Malaysian Censorship Board banned 50 Shades of Grey in 2015, people in the country are able to get their hands on an illegal copy of the movie through the ever-free Internet and illegal VCD/DVD dealers. The introduction of Malaysian Copyright Act 1987 proved that the government took piracy seriously and eventually hoped to put an end to it. Unfortunately, although illegal VCD/DVD dealers have been subjected to numerous raids by the authorities, their numbers are unlikely to decrease as the demand for illegal content is very high among Malaysians. For those who have slow Internet speed, it is more practical to buy illegal copies of VCDs or DVDs from unlawful dealers at prices starting from RM10 each, with discounts available for bulk purchases. The existence of illegal VCD and DVD dealerships not only raises questions about the relevance of stringent censorship but also explains one of the ways in which transnational content can be exchanged between countries.

Satellite Dishes and Antennae to Access TV Shows and Films

As in the case of radio, which was discussed in the previous section, Indonesian television owners in Northern Sumatra and West Kalimantan were able to access Malaysian television programs due to leaks of the broadcasting signal. In the late 1980s, television programs from the Malaysian channel TV3 were so popular in Sumatra that most Indonesian audiences were not aware they were enjoying programs from another country (Sen and Hill 2006). Other than TV3, two other mainstream Malaysian TV channels were also available for free beyond the Malaysian border in West Kalimantan—RTM1 and RTM2. Malaysians living near the border also have access to a few Indonesian television channels. In Johor, for example, residents can easily watch the three oldest Indonesian channels for free without having to subscribe to any cable or satellite service. Johor is located near Singapore and Indonesia. Hence, Singaporean and Indonesian channels are easily transmitted beyond the Malaysia-Indonesia and Malaysia-Singapore borders. By purchasing a standard outdoor antenna, viewers can enjoy TPI, RCTI, and SCTV from Indonesia as well as television channels from Singapore (Mohammad Faiq 2007). This can be considered as an unintended or unintentional transnational flow of media content, since the content comes via either illegal or unofficial transmission.

Likewise, the use of parabolic antennas in rural areas is seen as an essential unofficial medium for audiences in Indonesia to obtain transnational programs, including television programs from Malaysia, and vice versa. Compared to before the early 1990s, these days the numbers of satellite dishes in the country has decreased remarkably. In 1991, to control information flows from outside the country through alternative means such as privately owned satellite dishes, the Malaysian government announced a ban on all privately owned satellite dishes. The ban was described as highly necessary and a matter of highest national unity and security and also one of the ways to preserve Malaysian morals and values (Davidson 1998). With the ban in place, the Malaysian government aimed to control the massive flow of foreign media content into the country, worrying that without censorship, “dangerous” media content could easily influence Malaysians and not only jeopardize Malaysian culture but also threaten national harmony. However, as previously discussed, by the mid-1990s Astro Holdings was given the exclusive rights to provide satellite broadcasting services in the country. Ownership of satellite receivers other than Astro’s is considered illegal without a license—and owners of such receivers without the proper documentation and permits face confiscation of equipment as well as a hefty fine if discovered.

Private enterprises attempted to further encourage cross-border content broadcasting between Indonesia and Malaysia. One of the most prominent examples was the establishment of Astro Nusantara in 2006. As Malaysia’s sole satellite television service, this company signed an agreement with a local Indonesian company to establish its business in the Indonesian media market. Unfortunately, due to a stock dispute between the two majority shareholders, Astro Malaysia and Lippo Group, Astro Nusantara was dissolved in October 2008 (Malaysia Today, May 1, 2012). There was another reason why the Indonesian government supported the disbanding of Astro Nusantara. Indonesian Member of Parliament Dedy Malik argued that the Malaysian broadcasting company violated the broadcasting rules set by Indonesia’s Ministry of Communication and Information, especially the reciprocity clause (Tempo, March 3, 2006). Astro Malaysia was given a license to broadcast Malaysian content to Indonesian audiences, but this Malaysian satellite service did not transmit Indonesian content to Malaysian viewers.

Better Acceptance of Indonesian Content

We found that there were several reasons for the better acceptance of Indonesian media content in Malaysia than vice versa. Audiences in Malaysia found that Indonesian radio and television programs shared similar cultural values as their own; thus, it was easy for them to accept Indonesian content. Researchers such as Latifah Pawanteh et al. (2009) observed that at least for Malaysian media audiences, Asian media content such as Indonesia’s had relatable storylines and was relevant to their daily lives. The use of relatively identical language in the two countries in addition to Muslim-friendly content facilitated better acceptance of Indonesian content in Malaysia (Khairi Ahmad 1988). Moreover, since the majority of the population in both countries is Muslim, that further facilitates the flow of media between the two countries, mainly from Indonesia to Malaysia. Our analysis of media laws in both countries found that their regulations outlawed content that was deemed to be against Islamic values, such as explicit sexual content and gambling. In the case of Indonesian audiences, local media content is more popular than Malaysian content since Indonesia has a more advanced media industry and there are diverse options to choose from. Local media content is more popular among Indonesians also as it reflects Indonesian values. Some of the local media content is even produced in indigenous languages such as Javanese and Sundanese (Goebel, 2013), which makes it more appealing to local audiences (Sen and Hill 2006).

The entertainment industry in Indonesia is seen to be a step ahead of Malaysia’s. In 2017 Indonesia was the world’s 16th-biggest film market and the largest in Southeast Asian (Jakarta Post, December 14, 2018). Unlike Malaysian media products, Indonesian content is not only widely accepted by a global audience, but much of its profit is derived from the local market. With a population of 241 million in 2018 (Freedom House 2019), Indonesia undeniably has a larger talent pool than Malaysia. Due to Indonesia’s large population, its media market has greater potential for distributing local products. Its large population also makes Indonesia one of the most promising markets for the entertainment business in Asia (Jakarta Post, December 14, 2018; Chan 2019).

Low English proficiency among Indonesians is also deemed to be one of the factors contributing to the flourishing media industry in Indonesia. According to Itje Chodidjah, (2007) the dispersed geography of the Indonesian archipelago made it difficult to spread an English education. Low English proficiency led Indonesian audiences to prefer local rather than foreign content. Although Indonesia has diverse ethnicities and different languages, Bahasa Indonesia is the state’s officially mandated lingua franca (Rahmi 2015). Malay was used as an official language of Indonesia in 1918 (Moeliono 1993), primarily because colonial officials were concerned that if Dutch was extensively used, Indonesians would have easy access to political ideologies from abroad (Alisjahbana 1957; Lamb and Coleman 2008). In the 1920s, during the nationalist uprising in Indonesia, the nationalist movement declared Bahasa Indonesia as the language of solidarity for all Indonesians (Lamb and Coleman 2008). All these factors led to better acceptance of local media products than foreign materials and eventually contributed to the ever growing local media industry. Also, among the working class in Indonesia, local content was viewed as more relatable as it was imbued with familiar daily Indonesian values; this further contributed to the thriving entertainment industry in the state. Since the Indonesian entertainment industry was deemed good enough for Indonesians, foreign content—including that of Malaysian origin—was deemed inferior. The flourishing media industry in Indonesia provided better opportunities for the production of diverse media content than Malaysia. This was especially true after the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998, ending stringent control over media in Indonesia. The liberalization of the press in Indonesia resulted in the production of colorful media content that is still well received by international audiences, including Malaysians.


Our findings revealed that the Indonesian and Malaysian governments paid more attention to the flow of Western media content than to content from neighboring countries that shared the same religion and cultural values. As illustrated previously, hostility toward Western content could be seen through a more stringent body of laws in both countries prohibiting—often through censorship—materials that went against local norms (Wan Mahmud et al. 2009). At the same time, there is no record of an aggressive approach having been taken by either government when dealing with the illegal transmission of media content between these two countries, particularly near the border. Other than concerns over different religious and cultural values, governments were also concerned about the introduction of a consumer culture and liberal political ideologies from the West. Therefore, Western media content was more closely monitored and controlled through stringent media laws and policies (Ade Armando 2011). Such media content was viewed not only as an economic threat but also as a potential threat to national security.

As for the transnational flow of content between Indonesia and Malaysia, minimal documentation has been found to indicate that there were extensive official media exchanges between these two countries. In fact, scholars such as Van der Heide (2002) posited that scholarly discussion on the film industry in Asia often overlooked the Malaysian context. Based on our exploratory analysis, there was a lot of Indonesian entertainment content in Malaysia but minimal Malaysian content in the Indonesian media space. This was due to factors such as a better-developed entertainment industry in Indonesia, and a freer media environment in Indonesia, particularly after the fall of Suharto. Indonesians were found to prefer local rather than Malaysian content due to factors such as language and the sense of familiarity with Indonesian values depicted by locally produced broadcast media.

Also, minimal records have been found to indicate that either country paid close attention to media flows, especially the illicit transnational media flows in border areas. Not much action was taken to control the cross-border flow of content. It can be assumed that content from both countries was considered “safe” due to the countries’ common shared cultural and religious values; also, illegal content could flow transnationally only near the national border areas, and no significant amount of exchange was reported. Illicit cross-border broadcasts and content are believed to spread not much farther than the border areas of Malaysia and Indonesia.

Since the relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia has been somewhat unstable for several decades, media exchange may be seen as one way to rekindle the relationship. It is surprising that although several efforts have been made to improve the relationship, especially through strategic agreements, minimal efforts have focused on extensive media exchange. In the 1990s the two countries tried to work together on programs like Titian Muhibah, but since then no similar efforts have been made. Increased media exchange between Indonesia and Malaysia can serve the diplomatic purpose of improving the bittersweet bilateral relationship between these Nusantara countries.

Since this study was conducted through historical research, it is exploratory in nature. Minimal resources were found about official media exchanges between Indonesia and Malaysia. The issue can be further explored through interviewing media providers from both countries to see whether there are any bilateral agreements on broadcast media content. Research can also focus on interviewing diplomats from both countries to better understand the bilateral relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia. Through these interviews, researchers will be able to gain updated information on Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s media exchange initiatives and better understand how media exchange can serve as a diplomatic approach. Since there is also minimal proper documentation on unintended transnational media flows near the national borders, it would be best to explore this topic by interviewing and requesting official documentation from the relevant authorities in both countries.

Accepted: March 2, 2020


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1) Khairil Ashraf (2014) mentions Bung Mokhtar, a local politician from Sabah.

2) The first Act to be adopted was the Cinematograph Films Act 1952 (Amendment 1966), followed by the Film Censorship Act 2002 (Act 620), which is still in force today (Malaysia, Ministry of Home Affairs 2012).

3) Decisions are made based on rules and criteria stipulated in three basic documents: the Film Censorship Act, Censorship Guidelines, and Specific Guidelines Censorship (Malaysia, Ministry of Home Affairs 2012).

4) Vietnam, Singapore, Laos, Myanmar, Brunei, and the Philippines also have media policies focused on censorship, due to their respective authoritarian governments (see Sen and Lee 2008; Slater 2010).


Vol. 9, No. 1, Choo Chin LOW


Contents>> Vol. 9, No. 1

De-commercialization of the Labor Migration Industry in Malaysia

Choo Chin Low*

* History Department, School of Distance Education, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang 11800, Malaysia
e-mail: lowc[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.9.1_27

This paper focuses on irregularities as a result of the privatization of migrant worker recruitment and the unregulated activities of outsourcing companies, created by the institutionalization of the outsourcing system. Using Malaysia as its case study, this paper examines the strategies utilized by the government to de-commercialize the migration industry by phasing out intermediaries and turning to a government-to-government (G2G) approach. Eliminating the business aspect of the industry signifies a fundamental change in the government’s conceptualization, that is, labor migration should be framed as a long-term economic development issue rather than a national security threat. Enforced since 1995 and updated in 2010, the official policy to phase out agents has not eliminated employers’ and workers’ dependence on intermediaries, a historically rooted practice. The findings show that attempts to de-commercialize recruitment in Malaysia have led to monopolization of the industry and an increase in employers’ hiring costs and migrant workers’ application processing fees.

Keywords: de-commercialization, G2G, irregularities, labor policy, Malaysia, migration industry


This paper defines “de-commercialization” as a systematic attempt by governments to remove the business incentive of the labor migration industry. As shown in the Malaysian case, the government has attempted to discipline the market actors by freezing the outsourcing system, turning to the government-to-government (G2G) approach, digitalizing the recruitment process, replacing agents with government-appointed vendors, strengthening law enforcement on agents, and shifting the liability to employers. Although there is a lot of information on how commercialization has led to irregularities in Malaysia, there is considerably less knowledge about efforts to de-commercialize the industry. The Malaysian case study prompts a few questions: Why have the government’s de-commercialization initiatives been unsuccessful? What are these initiatives’ implications for the market actors? How does the shift to de-commercialization impact the state’s gatekeeping strategy? How has irregular migration been beneficial or harmful to the host country?

Malaysia’s long-standing battle against irregular migration calls for a thorough analysis of the myriad factors contributing to the persistence of this phenomenon. The Immigration Department has reiterated its pledge to free Malaysia from irregular migrants by intensifying its enforcement operation called Ops Mega 3.0, targeting both errant employers and irregular migrants, beginning July 1, 2018 (Star Online, July 21, 2018). The government’s continuous operations against employers and irregular migrant workers have prompted extensive criticism for overlooking the role of commercial brokers and intermediaries. In response to Ops Mega 3.0 nationwide raids, over a hundred civil society organizations and migrant groups issued a joint statement “calling for an immediate moratorium” on the operations. According to the joint statement, the affected migrants’ status of irregularity was due to the systemic existence of trafficking networks in Malaysia, deception by agents, exploitation by employers, and the complex commercial chains of private outsourcing companies. Becoming undocumented was primarily an outcome of the illegal activities of trafficking syndicates and employment agents (Civil Society Organisations 2018).

After the change in political leadership in May 2018, industry players and trade associations wanted the new Pakatan Harapan government to formulate a clearer foreign worker policy. They maintained that all stakeholders should be involved in devising an all-encompassing policy on foreign worker recruitment. While they agreed that law enforcement was necessary, they reminded the authorities not to neglect the various sectors’ needs for foreign workers (Kong 2018). There were at least two irregular workers for every legal worker employed by companies. It was estimated that four million undocumented migrants worked in various industries.

According to employer associations, the high number of irregular foreign workers may be traced to third-party agents who have brought in an excessive supply of such workers. Tracking down irregular migrant workers would cripple the country’s economy. Instead of targeting employers and irregular workers, the government is urged to address the root cause of irregularities—the involvement of third-party agents. One hundred members of the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers signed a petition to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA), urging the government to investigate the operations of government-appointed outsourcing companies, which have failed in their responsibility to ensure “the sound management of imported labour” (Teh and Shah 2018).

Shifting the attention to brokers and outsourcing companies as key players that produce and sustain irregular migration is significant in three ways. First, it addresses a long-standing problem in the privatization of recruitment and the institutionalization of the outsourcing system. The recruitment model in Malaysia is based on the business-to-business (B2B) approach by third-party agents (recruiters, outsourcers, and labor intermediaries). Due to its business nature, the B2B approach entails high costs as it involves several agents and subagents in countries of origin and destination, generating “gains that mostly favor third-party intermediaries” (World Bank 2015, 56). Various reports document that exorbitant costs charged by third parties incentivize existing documented workers to overstay after the expiration of their work permits in order to pay off their debts and potential workers to join underground employment (SOMO 2013, 6; Verité 2014; ILO 2016, 13). The main question is whether the government is committed to controlling, reducing, and eventually discontinuing the practice of outsourced contract labor that affects workers’ rights.

Second, the shift has serious policy implications for migration control strategy. To remove the business incentive, the state has moved toward de-commercialization of the industry by phasing out private agencies and turning to the G2G state-operated mechanism. Eliminating the role of outsourcing companies and intermediaries is outlined in the 11th Malaysia Plan (2016–20) for national economic development as part of the reform to improve the management of foreign workers (Malaysia, Economic Planning Unit 2015, ch. 5). Eliminating the intermediaries’ role complements centralizing the regulatory infrastructure and digitalizing recruitment through an online platform. Ideally, this move has allowed the government to regain control over the recruitment process and profits gained while cutting intermediaries and corruption among officers.

Third, with the diminishing role of intermediaries, the state reinforces internal gatekeeping by making employers fully responsible for the recruitment and welfare of their foreign workers under the newly introduced strict liability program. Internal gatekeeping in the labor market and in underground employment is important because irregular migration is driven by both pull and push dynamics involving various migration industry actors (Triandafyllidou and Ambrosini 2011, 272). Irregularities are explained by using different frameworks: the role of intermediaries in the migration industry, restrictive immigration policies, and structural causes related to uneven development between the Global North and the Global South (Castles 2004; Koser 2010).

This paper builds on the literature about the migration industry. John Salt and Jeremy Stein conceptualize “migration as a business.” They argue, “The migration business is conceived as a system of institutionalized networks with complex profit and loss accounts, including a set of institutions, agents and individuals each of which stands to make a commercial gain” (Salt and Stein 1997, 467). This conceptualization has significant policy implications because it shifts the attention of policy makers to “the institutions and vested interests involved rather than on the migrants themselves” (Salt and Stein 1997, 468). Governments’ migration management is part of the business, and their control policies are aimed “at making an investment in managing the business for a worthwhile return” (Salt and Stein 1997, 468). The literature on the migration industry focuses on irregularities created by the commercialization of the business and how various actors profit from the industry. With the increasing commercialization of migration, the industry actors’ role is gaining significant traction. Actors include transnational companies providing migration management services, recruitment agencies facilitating access to legal migration, networks set up by migrants themselves, human smuggling networks, non-governmental organizations, and migrant associations (Sørensen and Gammeltoft-Hansen 2013, 9–10). Conceptualization of the migration industry is important in understanding “how migration is fostered, constrained, shaped and assisted” (Cranston et al. 2018, 545).

Various forms of transnational migration, including labor migration, involve intermediaries (Fernandez 2013; Groutsis et al. 2015; Ambrosini 2017; Harvey et al. 2018). In the Asian migration industry, the intermediaries’ role has historical roots. Migrants almost never approach the appropriate government agency directly, preferring an informal labor recruiter (field agent) (Lindquist 2010, 125). Examining the Indonesian migration industry, Johan Lindquist (2010) argues that historically specific environments have created the space for informal brokers, who mediate between formal recruitment agencies, bureaucracies, and villages. An informal brokerage system (existing in parallel with formal channels) is necessary in the midst of capitalism, state power, and local economies of trust (Lindquist 2010, 132). In investigating migration regimes across Asia, it is important to include the role of migrant brokers. According to Johan Lindquist, Xiang Biao, and Brenda S. A. Yeoh (2012), examining the brokers’ role is an approach used to understand the “black box” of migration. These authors remind readers of the importance of focusing on the migration infrastructure, including institutions, profit-oriented networks, and people, that determines the mobility of migrants: “By focusing on those who move migrants rather than the migrants themselves it is possible to more effectively conceptualise the broader infrastructure that makes mobility possible” (Lindquist et al. 2012, 9). Brokers and the infrastructure occupy the “middle space of migration” that makes mobility possible (Lindquist et al. 2012, 11).

In their research on low-skilled labor migration from China and Indonesia, Xiang Biao and Johan Lindquist (2014) call for the clear conceptualization of migration beyond state policies, the labor market, or migrant social networks. As labor migration is intensively mediated, focusing on the concept of a commercial infrastructure (institutions, intermediaries, market actors, and technologies) would unpack the process of mediation (Xiang and Lindquist 2014, 122). Rather than migration being conceptualized as a journey between two places, it is viewed as a “multi-faceted space of mediation occupied by commercial recruitment intermediaries” (Xiang and Lindquist 2014, 142). Migration brokerage is a huge business. Brokers have played a significant role in the middle space of migration, facilitating recruitment, connecting people, establishing networks, and making migration safer. In contrast to the stereotype of unscrupulous brokers, Alice Kern and Ulrike Müller-Böker find that brokerage and recruitment agencies have contributed to securing new means of livelihood for people and fostering the development of countries (Kern and Müller-Böker 2015, 158).

Moving beyond contemporary debates in migration studies, this paper surveys the development of the government’s attempt to de-commercialize the migration industry, using Malaysia as the case study. First, it investigates how the institutionalization of the outsourcing system has led to irregularities, as well as highlights the role of the migration industry. Second, the paper examines the government’s initiatives to phase out intermediaries and to regain control of the process under a state-operated mechanism, considering the challenges encountered. Finally, it analyzes the implications of the state’s migration policies for the nation.

The de-commercialization approach of the labor migration industry is not unique to Malaysia. In the Asian context, the market-driven recruitment system has been gradually replaced by a government-regulated system. Other labor-receiving countries have attempted to eliminate private agents from the recruitment process, such as South Korea implementing the Employment Permit System (Vandenberg 2015, 2; Migrant Forum in Asia 2017, 2–3). Applying the working framework in the Malaysian case, this article seeks to contribute to a better understanding of Malaysia’s migration industry. Despite efforts to de-commercialize the industry, the initiatives have resulted in business monopolization by some authorized companies and an increase in employers’ hiring costs and migrant workers’ application processing fees. The analysis draws on Hansard documents (between 2005 and 2017), legislation, official reports by migrant groups, press releases, English-language newspaper articles, and secondary literature.

Literature Review

Much of the literature on Malaysia’s migration industry is highly critical of the development of the state-sponsored outsourcing system. Migration scholars suggest that irregularities in Malaysia are created by the privatization of recruitment. The business aspect is reinforced at the institutional level through the institutionalization of the outsourcing system. In examining the migration industry in the Indonesia-Malaysia corridor, Ernst Spaan and Ton van Naerssen find that industry actors—whether formal or informal—are thriving due to the changing context of government policies (Spaan and van Naerssen 2018, 680). The government has delegated some of its immigration functions to non-state actors, creating much space for licensed recruitment agencies in labor migration management. The migration industry system consists of formal, licensed recruitment companies and informal networks, both of which are intertwined. The thriving of informal migration industry networks is attributed to the weak regulatory framework (Spaan and van Naerssen 2018, 690–691). Migration industry actors are incorporated by the Malaysian state in its immigration management as it has outsourced some immigration functions to private actors. In their work on Burmese labor migration to Malaysia, Anja Franck, Emanuelle Brandström Arellano, and Joseph Trawicki Anderson show that private actors are also important to the migrants themselves as “means to increase their room to maneuver during the migration process” (Franck et al. 2018, 55).

Sidney Jones convincingly shows how various actors in the Indonesian-Malaysian migration industry have profited from the recruitment process, ranging from the lucrative people-smuggling businesses, the profitable black market document industry, and corruption in both countries to employers hiring undocumented workers (Jones 2000, 35, 89). Informal recruitment (taikong) with the help of local agents is largely responsible for clandestine entries and the smuggling of undocumented workers (Kassim 1997, 57). The persistence of underground employment is due to the business aspect of the industry: “Economically, illegal entry and recruitment of foreign labour generate a lot of business for traffickers, landlords, exploitative employers, and suppliers of false documents” (Kassim 1997, 67). Azizah Kassim attributes this phenomenon to the ineffective enforcement of laws against Malaysian citizens’ harboring and employment of undocumented migrants (Kassim 1997, 76). Market actors, including agents and outsourcing companies, are part of an integrated migration system. Alice Nah blames the irregularity on “the lack of attention to the institutions, processes and actions that stimulate irregular migration” (Nah 2012, 490).

The severe labor shortage in certain industries, the economic disparities between Malaysia and the countries of origin, the tradition of travel in the Malay Archipelago, and geographic proximity have all explained the emergence of formal and informal recruitment agencies. According to Blanca Garcés-Mascareñas, “their presence must be understood not only as a way of channeling migration flows, but also as a mechanism that promotes them” (Garcés-Mascareñas 2012, 49–50). The privatization of recruitment has a twofold effect: (1) increasing the cost of legal migration, thus making the legal channel an unattractive option; and (2) contributing to the incidence of irregularities. Upon entry into Malaysia, many legal migrants join the ranks of illegality due to various malpractices of recruitment agencies, such as recruiting without definite employment and bringing in workers under forged permits (Garcés-Mascareñas 2012, 72–73).

The existence of labor brokerage in Malaysia may be traced to the British colonial era. The relationship between the colonial state (as the regulatory agency), labor brokers, and employers in the migration infrastructure was well established in the historical context. The British colonial power created migration corridors across Malaya, India, and China, encouraging labor mobility in Southeast Asia (Kaur 2012, 225–226). Private labor brokers played an important role in recruiting Indian plantation workers under the colonial recruitment methods, comprising the indenture system and the Kangani system. Under the indenture method, employers used labor recruitment firms in India (Kaur 2012, 232). Meanwhile, the Kangani system utilized existing plantation workers as brokers to recruit laborers from their villages in India. Both methods were phased out in 1910 and 1938, respectively, as the state became the broker for Indian labor recruitment as well as a regulatory agency (Kaur 2012, 233–235). Similarly, private labor brokers played a major role in Chinese labor migration through a “kinship-based” migration network in China and the contract-based credit-ticket network in British Malaya. Reports of laborer abuse attributed to the credit-ticket system for Chinese labor recruitment led to its abolition in 1914 (Kaur 2012, 239–241).

Despite the British ban on the contract-based labor system, the intermediaries’ role continued to flourish after Malaysia was granted national independence, corresponding to the growth of the country’s migration industry. Malaysia’s Private Employment Agencies Act of 1981 formalized the private labor brokers’ function of recruiting foreign labor (Kaur 2012, 244–247). Under the guest worker program and offshore recruitment procedures, foreign labor recruitment was inadequately monitored, providing fertile ground for commercial broker networks to bring in an excessive labor supply. The practice of outsourced labor led to the commercialization of the industry, with legal migrants and locals entering the migration industry market and becoming recruitment agents themselves. Contemporary legal migrants’ involvement in the underground migration industry is somewhat reminiscent of the practice of the colonial Kangani system and the credit-ticket system, whereby migrants themselves recruited workers for plantations and mines through their personal networks. The situation illustrates the entrenchment of migrant networks in the recruitment system.

Legal foreign workers are joining the underground migration industry by setting up illegal businesses, thus abusing their work permits. Illegal businesses operated by immigrants are swelling in the major central business district areas in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysian citizens sublet their licenses by charging a monthly fee, ranging from MYR1,000 to MYR2,000, whereas a license usually costs MYR100 to MYR150. Some foreigners, especially Bangladeshis and Indians, have obtained business licenses by marrying local women. Illegal businesses have negative consequences on Malaysia’s economy because foreigners do not pay taxes, creating unfair competition for Malaysians, and Malaysia suffers from monetary outflow through increased foreign remittances annually (Bavani 2017).

Legally hired immigrants are not allowed to conduct business on behalf of companies, become business owners, or have their own business premises or business entities that are against Malaysian laws. The reality is that business owners are undocumented immigrants who have stayed and worked illegally in the country for a long period. These undocumented foreign workers (Pendatang Asing Tanpa Izin) have gradually become illegal employers (Majikan Asing Tanpa Izin).

This case highlights three implications. The first involves Malaysian citizens who have hired and harbored irregular migrants. The increased number of these underground businesses is attributed to Malaysian citizens who are the license holders of the business premises. Second, the monopolization of the businesses has affected local traders. Third, illegal businesses are often related to other illegal activities, such as license abuse, illegal utility connections, premises misused for vice-related activities, and tax avoidance (Shah 2018). The extent to which these business operations occur indicates the practice of contracting marriages for business purposes. The Immigration Department has identified four hundred Pakistani men who have married local women in the state of Kelantan in order to stay longer and operate businesses in Malaysia. Most of the Pakistan nationals operate small retail stores by securing business licenses through their local spouses who are double their age (Free Malaysia Today 2019).

The influx of migrant workers is attributed to the high reliance on them to take low- and medium-skilled jobs, and the employers’ interest is a force to be reckoned with. There were 1,758,238 registered foreign workers in the country as of February 28, 2018, with the majority coming from Indonesia (705,154 or 40.11 percent), followed by Nepal (382,651 or 21.76 percent), Bangladesh (268,050 or 15.25 percent), India (113,891 or 6.48 percent), and Myanmar (107,555 or 6.12 percent) (Table 1). Six sectors, comprising one informal (employing foreign maids) and five formal sectors (construction, manufacturing, services, plantations, and agriculture), are allowed to employ foreign workers. The 15 source countries that are permitted to supply workers to Malaysia are Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Pakistan, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Laos, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. The employment period is five years + five years for the five formal sectors. For the informal sector, foreign maids have no fixed employment period. The permitted age range of foreign workers is between 18 and 45 years (Malaysia, Ministry of Home Affairs 2019). As of February 28, 2018, foreign workers constituted a large share of the total employment in manufacturing (36.58 percent), followed by construction (18.8 percent), plantations (15.07 percent), services (13.63 percent), agriculture (8.8 percent), and domestic help (7.12 percent) (Table 2). Foreign workers were highly concentrated in Selangor (30 percent), followed by Johor (17.53 percent), Kuala Lumpur Federal Territory (14.57 percent), Penang (7.4 percent), Sabah (7.2 percent), and Sarawak (7.19 percent) (Table 2). In 2017, foreign workers represented around 15.5 percent of all employed persons in Malaysia (Khazanah Research Institute 2018, 120). The high dependence on foreign labor indicates the need for a fundamental reconceptualization of migrant labor in the policy debate by viewing labor migration as a long-term development issue rather than a security concern. Migrant labor management has sidelined the issues of third parties’ involvement and foreign workers’ exploitation, which have perpetuated the migration industry (Lee 2017, 558).


Table 1 Statistics of Foreign Workers by Nationality and Sector as of February 28, 2018




Table 2 Statistics of Foreign Workers by State and Sector as of February 28, 2018



Scholars suggest that illegality is the consequence of weak gatekeeping on the labor market front. In the Malaysian context, the gatekeeping function is rather weak in its preventive efforts, especially in labor market checks. Private agents have been able to bring in an excessive number of foreign workers, mainly due to the lack of a comprehensive assessment of labor market demand. There are no guidelines for determining the exact quotas of foreign workers needed for each industry. The quota figures are merely “guesstimates” (Abella and Martin 2016, 99). The inadequacy on the labor market front may be explained by the state’s conceptualization of migration as a “security problem that has needed a security response from the state apparatus” rather than an economic issue (Arifianto 2009, 623). According to Malaysian political discourse, migration is conceptualized as securitization. Migration is viewed as an issue of national security rather than as an industry, resulting in the consolidation of the state’s penalty regime against undocumented migrants (Liow 2003, 50). This contradiction is reflected in the regulatory mechanism itself: the MOHA rather than the Ministry of Human Resources (MOHR) is tasked with policy making on labor migration, although both institutions are involved in labor migration. Foreign workers are perceived as potential national security threats; thus, the management of foreign labor has been placed under the jurisdiction of the MOHA (ILO 2016, 11). This situation has raised questions over who the gatekeeper is and where the gatekeeping occurs.

Illegality is also the outcome of unregulated gatekeeping by employers and the legal system. Many foreigners enter the country as documented workers but later become undocumented due to the lack of redress. There is no channel for complaints for these foreign workers when they face pressure from their employers who do not comply with all the conditions stipulated in their contracts and do not pay them salaries. Employers can dismiss workers, terminate their contracts, take “check-out memos” from the Immigration Office, and book tickets for them to return to their home countries. Without any opportunity to claim their rights, terminated foreign workers either resort to the black market (refusing to return without settling their debts) or return to their home countries with debt burdens (Malaysia 2015c, 26–27). Although laws are provided for the Labor Court and Industrial Court, foreign workers have no right to redress. Employers can issue check-out memos and get away with it. The MOHA has been urged to empower avenues for foreign workers to defend themselves and their right to redress in cases of disputes with their employers (Malaysia 2015c, 28). The Immigration Act, Section 55B, states that an employer hiring five unauthorized foreign workers may be imprisoned for a term between six months and five years and whipped a maximum of six strokes (Malaysia 2006). Employers have the perception that they can get away with hiring undocumented workers. According to the Malaysian Employers Federation, imposing heavy penalties will not deter small businesses from hiring foreigners. There is always a ready supply of undocumented workers, and employers are willing to take chances in hiring them to remain competitive (Shurentheran 2017).

The overflow of undocumented workers is caused by the privatization of recruitment. According to MP Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj, “It’s the business aspect of it that lets a lot of unscrupulous agents who make promises to bring people in and then let them loose in the sense that they can’t go back because of their debts” (Abu Bakar 2017). Employers are often depicted as being “forced” to hire from the readily available pool of undocumented immigrants in order to remain competitive. If employers hire local workers and pay them minimum wages in accordance with the law, they cannot compete with their peers who hire undocumented workers. Partly due to weakness in the law enforcement on employers and partly due to over-recruitment by employment agencies, the cycle continues (Abu Bakar 2017). Permits granted to outsourcing companies without adequate control lead to a “race to the bottom,” in which firms compete against one another by cutting costs as much as possible and paying the lowest wages to remain competitive. The government has thus been urged to revert to a state-operated mechanism (Malaysia 2014, 79–80).

The flow of irregular migrants have deeply impacted the wages and job opportunities of local workers. The labor market structure favors hiring undocumented workers in the very first place, discriminating against Malaysian workers. Employing local workers is more expensive because employers have to pay them the minimum wage of MYR1,000 per month (as of July 2016) and 13 percent of the Employees’ Provident Fund contribution. For foreign workers, the levy is deducted from their salaries, as stipulated in their contracts. Foreign workers are silent if they are not paid the 1.5 overtime rate. The ready supply of foreign workers and the labor market structure explain employers’ reluctance to hire local workers. To eliminate the wage inequality, the costs of employing foreign and local workers must be equal (Malaysia 2015d, 61–62). As pointed out by MP Devaraj, an analysis of the problem of irregularities should consider the issue of who benefits and who suffers from the arrival of foreign workers. Those who gain from the presence of foreign workers are employers, agents, labor contractors, and perhaps corrupt immigration officers who receive high commissions. The top 10 percent (T10) have profited from this situation, while foreign workers and the lower income group or the bottom 40 percent (B40) of Malaysian households have suffered the consequences. Approximately 75 percent of the B40 consists of the Malay community (Malaysia 2015c, 27–28).

Although much has been written regarding how commercialization of the migration industry has led to irregularities in Malaysia, there is considerably less information about efforts to de-commercialize the industry. Building on the above literature, this paper discusses shifts in government policy since the first decade of the twenty-first century to remove the industry’s business incentive. Next, this paper explains a few government initiatives for de-commercialization, including freezing the outsourcing system, turning to the G2G approach, digitalizing the recruitment process, changing the gatekeeper orientation, replacing agents with government-appointed vendors, strengthening law enforcement on agents, and renegotiating memorandums of understanding (MoUs) with labor-supplying countries in ASEAN.

De-commercialization of the Migration Industry in Malaysia

Freezing the Outsourcing System and the Setback

The government has attempted to abolish the use of outsourcing agents throughout the history of Malaysia’s migration regime. In 1995 the government made the radical move to ban agencies from bringing in foreign workers (except domestic workers) and to reduce the number of licensed Malaysian recruiting agencies (169 at the time). This policy paralleled the Indonesian Ministry of Manpower’s policy of reducing its licensed recruiting agencies (Jones 2000, 29). The state became the sole institution authorized to recruit. In 1995 a Special Task Force on Foreign Labour was set up in the MOHA as the sole agency responsible for foreign labor recruitment. This was tantamount to establishing the state’s direct management of foreign worker recruitment, taking over the regulatory functions from licensed employment agencies. During this period, the Immigration Department’s function was expanded to deal with policy making on foreign labor recruitment (Kaur 2012, 248–249). The G2G model was implemented when recruitment was centralized in the country. A G2G agreement was made with Indonesia. A subsidiary company (Peti Bijak) was created in Indonesia. However, all the G2G efforts eventually failed. The Malaysian government was forced to accept that the recruitment industry involving private employment agencies (PEAs) was a multimillion-ringgit business. It was difficult to control the industry (Malaysia 2005, 20).

As a result, the Private Employment Agencies Act of 1981 was amended in 2005, re-legalizing recruitment agencies and institutionalizing an outsourcing system. The previous policy of de-recognizing private agencies did not solve the problems with foreign workers as employers continued to use their services. It was even more difficult to control the activities of private agencies due to their lack of recognition. Under this system, outsourcing companies were the legal employers of migrant workers (Garcés-Mascareñas 2012, 71). However, both employers and outsourcing companies tended to avoid fulfilling their responsibilities to foreign workers. This situation compelled the state to revert to the G2G system, so that employers would be accountable. In 2010 the government decided to phase out outsourcing firms in line with its initiatives to replace intermediaries with G2G agreements. No new licenses were granted to outsourcing companies; the number of outsourcing agents was thus controlled (World Bank 2015, 68). The government decided that assessing the performance of the 276 outsourcing companies would be necessary. It could no longer allow profit-oriented outsourcing companies’ disregard for their social responsibility, causing a negative impact on national security and public order. Controlling outsourcing agency activities would be essential to ensure that these companies would not worsen the situation with an excessive supply of foreign workers (Malaysia 2010, 33).

Though the outsourcing system was terminated, the practice of outsourcing workers continued in another form. The government institutionalized its outsourcing system when it amended the Employment Act of 1955 in 2012. This landmark amendment blurred the legal employment relationship between employers and workers by introducing the concept of a “contractor for labor.” A drawback of the concept was the distancing of employers from any liability for migrant workers (Devadason and Chan 2014, 27; World Bank 2015, 56). Contractors for labor included outsourcing agents, brokers, PEAs, and other third parties that supplied outsourced workers to employers (principals of workplaces). Outsourced workers were legally not employees of the principal of a workplace. The amendment did not “advocate a permanent direct employment relationship between employers and workers” (Syed Mohamud 2012). Moreover, workers had no right to be members of a trade union and hence were unable to benefit from collective agreements. For the Malaysian Trade Union Congress, PEAs could still supply workers, but these workers had to be hired as employees of the workplace with similar benefits (Syed Mohamud 2012). Principal employers left the responsibility to determine contract workers’ terms and conditions of employment to the contractors as long as their demand for labor was met. Based on a survey conducted on employers, contractors, and contract workers in 1993–94, Lee Kiong Hock and Alagandram Sivananthiran concluded that less than 10 percent of the contractors provided welfare benefits to contract workers (Lee and Sivananthiran 1996, 80–82). There were no written contracts, and contract workers were denied most of the benefits stipulated under labor laws (Lee and Sivananthiran 1996, 89).

During the second and third readings of the Employment (Amendment) Bill it was widely criticized, mainly due to its serious implications for workers’ rights, particularly workers employed by contractors for labor. There were 277 outsourcing companies, and outsourced workers were not limited to foreign workers but included local ones. First, there was no security of tenure, a key principle of the International Labour Organization (ILO). This amendment elicited insecurity because of the uncertainty in the contract workers’ future employment prospects. Security of tenure ensured the existence of protection. Second, there was a proprietary right to jobs; workers could not be dismissed for no valid reason. However, the amendment triggered uncertainty because factory owners were not the employers (Malaysia 2011b, 97). Most important, the introduction of contractors for labor brought back the Kangani system used during the British colonial era. The bill legalized the old system that had been banned by the British colonial power under the 1955 Employment Act. The original 1955 Employment Act issued by the British consisted of two important principles—security of tenure and proprietary right to the job. However, the amended act legalized the practice in which workers could be employed by a contractor for labor and be brought to a factory whose owner was not the employer. Their condition was uncertain. Their fate was uncertain (Malaysia 2011b, 98). In terms of protecting foreign workers’ rights, the legislation would be a black mark in Malaysia’s labor history. The parliament brought back the long-abolished system by issuing the amended act (Malaysia 2011b, 99).

There were perceptions that the responsible ministry had transferred its responsibility to outsourced companies, disregarding migrants’ protection and welfare. The principal company had no responsibilities to the workers, was not liable to them, and in fact was not their employer. A parliamentarian asked, “I would like to ask the Minister how the contract of service can be established as between the contractor of labor and workers when the contractor of labor is not the owner operator” (Malaysia 2011b, 112). The Employment (Amendment) Act of 2012 framed foreign worker recruitment as a business. Migration has become a lucrative industry; people can make profits from recruiting workers. The contractor system has undermined the protection of workers and is regarded as anti-labor legislation (Malaysia 2011b, 110). The issue of the outsourcing system having been created to generate profit for certain parties has been brought to the forefront of parliamentary debates:

It in fact showed we are allowing foreign workers to work, not with the intention to help the economy but as a business. Many of the outsourcing companies that were allowed to bring foreign workers are the cronies of politicians. It’s all licensing to profit. (Malaysia 2016b, 92)

The cases of Bangladesh and Nepal, as discussed in the next section, show the limitations of the privatization of recruitment. Under the private management of Bangladeshi workers in 2007–8, unscrupulous agents’ recruitment malpractices—including corruption, joblessness, low wages, non-payment, and poor living conditions—resulted in an excessive number of Bangladeshi workers being sent to Malaysia. Many ended up jobless or in unpaid short-term jobs and eventually returned home. In 2009 Malaysia canceled 55,000 visas and imposed a four-year ban on recruitment from Bangladesh. Concern over maltreatment by Malaysian employers prompted the Bangladeshi government to initiate the G2G mechanism (Palma 2015; Tusher 2016).

The Malaysian government failed to equip itself with the necessary capability to control foreign workers from Indonesia through G2G. Leaving the problem unsolved, the Malaysian government adopted the G2G approach with Bangladesh and Nepal.

Turning to G2G Bilateralism

The G2G recruitment arrangement with countries of origin eliminated the involvement of private agencies. The MoU signed by Malaysia and Bangladesh in 2012 was significant in two aspects—it removed the involvement of private agencies and included the Online Application for Employment of Foreign Workers (Malaysian acronym SPPA), thereby eliminating the workers’ incentive to overstay in order to settle their debts (ILO 2016, 15–16). The SPPA was introduced in February 2017. The MoU stipulated that the entry of Bangladeshi workers was allowed only through G2G mechanisms. The admission process was approved by the respective government agencies in both countries and did not involve third parties. Job seekers underwent health screening for 18 types of diseases, a security screening process, and induction training to ensure that only candidates who were qualified and met the set criteria were shortlisted to be sent to Malaysia. Similarly, the Malaysian government implemented strict screening of employers applying to hire workers. The government rejected some plantation companies for not complying with the minimum wage requirement and the provision of standard homes, as well as those with records of law violations (Malaysia 2013, 1–2).

However, the G2G effort was rendered ineffective by the lobbying of private sector agents in Malaysia because it deprived them of millions of taka and ringgit that they were earning through the B2B system. Only ten thousand Bangladeshi workers were hired, although Malaysia had a target of recruiting thirty thousand. The G2G model was unpopular among agents and employers, who preferred hiring through the private sector. This state of affairs pointed out “the inefficiency of the government in handling the business” (Palma 2015). The failure of the G2G approach led both governments to set up the G2G Plus deal to recruit 1.5 million workers over the next three years, replacing the G2G agreement signed for 2012–14. Private firms were allowed to send workers to Malaysia through the government arrangement under the G2G Plus deal signed in 2016. Employers were held responsible for workers’ security deposits, levies, visa fees, and health and compensation insurance, in addition to the MYR1,985 expatriation cost for each worker (Carvalho 2016).

The issue of bringing 1.5 million Bangladeshis into the country was debatable. The (mis)perception was that the government was not serious about eliminating irregular immigration because it was about the money trail. Besides the money chain, some parties benefited from the involvement of syndicates in the transnational border crossing. According to the government, these syndicates tried to outsmart law enforcement, and it was unfair to allege officers’ involvement. As a result of the widespread misconception, the government introduced the online application system to remove the roles of agents and syndicates (Malaysia 2015d, 56). A parliamentarian pointed out, “The entry of foreign workers is a profitable business. Bringing in foreign workers, 1.5 million from Bangladesh workers with MYR3,000 per head, how much profit is there? It is deemed as ‘human trafficking,’ but it is a legal trading” (Malaysia 2015d, 59). For the MOHA, the purpose behind hiring 1.5 million workers was to enable the deportation of the existing undocumented workers. The request for Bangladeshi workers came from the employers’ associations themselves. Bangladeshi workers were preferred because they were deemed more trustworthy than other foreign workers (Malaysia 2015d, 59).

Another related matter was the MOHA’s questionable adeptness in handling the issue of foreign worker recruitment. According to then Human Resources Minister Richard Riot, only 2,948 workers were hired through the G2G in 2015. In 2016 the number dropped to seven persons under the G2G Plus mechanism, reflecting the ineptitude of the system. The MOHR has been urging the government to centralize the recruitment and employment of foreign workers (currently under the jurisdiction of the MOHA) under the MOHR. The MOHR believes that, as the ministry responsible for the workforce, it should take the lead in employment affairs. The task should not be divided between these two ministries, in order to facilitate enforcement and fulfillment of access to labor market needs (Malaysia 2017a, 55–56).

Most important, private recruitment agencies perceived the G2G Plus deal as a form of business monopolization by a Malaysian private company. The agencies represented by the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (Baira) protested to Bangladesh’s prime minister because the deal effectively eliminated all Baira members from the recruitment business, while allowing the Malaysian syndicate to generate profits with its affiliated companies. The monopolization in the Malaysian case was unique as there was no foreign company monopolization in the other 139 countries in which Baira was involved (Star Online, February 18, 2016). The concerns over Malaysia’s possible business monopolization were justified. Under the G2G Plus deal, hiring was done online through the SPPA, which referred employers to 10 companies that had been designated as sole authorized agents, closing the door to about 1,500 recruitment agents in Bangladesh. Bestinet Sdn Bhd, a private company that operated the SPPA, functioned as the service provider for the distribution of workers to their employers via the 10 companies. A local news media company, Star Online, reported the involvement of a human trafficking syndicate that earned MYR2 billion through the recruitment of Bangladeshi workers. The industry involved a multitude of intermediaries. Of the MYR20,000 paid by each worker, MYR2,500 was pocketed by a subagent who was connected to another subagent from the worker’s village, who also took MYR2,500; one of the 10 companies then charged MYR10,000, and MYR3,000 was given to a local Malaysian agent. The whole employment process cost only MYR2,000 (Perumal 2018a).

In June 2018 the new Malaysian government suspended the G2G Plus deal along with the 10 authorized companies for recruiting Bangladeshi workers. The new human resources minister, M. Kulasegaran, announced the suspension pending a full investigation. The entire recruitment process under the G2G Plus deal was perceived as a “business aimed at benefiting certain individuals,” and the process was “a total mess” (Star Online, June 22, 2018). The SPPA was also suspended effective September 1, 2018. The decision broke the monopoly of the 10 authorized companies, offering relief for 1,500 recruitment agencies in Bangladesh, and Malaysian employers were no longer required to pay MYR305 as the SPPA registration fee (Perumal 2018d).

Similar to the Bangladeshi case, the recruitment of Nepalese workers was beleaguered by the problem of monopolization, in addition to red tape and bureaucracy. The recruitment mechanism was overly complex, involving various government-appointed private agencies charging high fees as part of the visa requirements. In May 2018, Nepal barred its workers from going to Malaysia due to the exorbitant visa fees. The temporary moratorium resulted in fifteen thousand to twenty thousand workers being left in limbo. The new Nepalese government demanded the revocation of private companies, streamlining the existing complex mechanism, and reducing visa costs (New Straits Times, August 2, 2018). Due to a private company’s (Bestinet Sdn Bhd) virtual monopolization of the processing of Nepalese applicants’ work visas, other companies were not allowed in the business. Malaysia has been highly dependent on Gurkhas (native soldiers) from Nepal to work in the security line. In 2018, of the approximately half a million Nepalese workers in Malaysia, 150,000 were hired as security guards (Perumal 2018b). As a result of the controversy surrounding Bestinet’s monopolization, the company was suspended by the Malaysian government in August 2018, pending a new MoU with Nepal. Malaysia would sign a new G2G agreement with Nepal, based on the model used with Bangladesh (New Straits Times, August 14, 2018). The new Pakatan Harapan government would scrap the G2G Plus deal, formulated by the previous Barisan Nasional government, and revert to direct recruitment based on the G2G agreement without any intermediaries (Star Online, July 29, 2018).

Centralization of recruitment under a sole private agency, as in the cases of Bangladesh and Nepal, showed that it was problematic to the source countries. It created “a monopolistic situation,” prevented open competition, and weakened labor relations with the source countries (Rahim 2018a). Outsourcing companies had not been allowed to manage foreign workers since 2010, and many such companies closed their businesses. The Malaysian Association of Suppliers and Employees Management of Foreign Workers, comprising 149 licensed outsourcing companies whose market opportunity had been closed by the previous government, hoped that the Pakatan Harapan government would allow open competition and engage the expertise, capability, and experience of outsourcing companies (Perumal 2018c).

In October 2018 the new Pakatan Harapan government announced the abolition of the outsourcing of foreign worker recruitment effective March 31, 2019. In the government efforts to curb human trafficking and workers’ exploitation, intermediaries and agents would no longer be allowed to hire workers. The joint committee from the Home Ministry and the MOHR decided that the task of foreign worker recruitment, previously handled by about a hundred outsourcing agencies, would be taken over by the MOHR (Zainal 2019).

Digitalizing the Recruitment and Permit Renewal Process

Another initiative taken to phase out agents was replacing the manual process conducted at the immigration counters with an online platform. The shift to digitalization was perceived as an anti-corruption, agent-free, and cost-effective policy. Digitalizing some immigration functions was an important milestone toward the de-commercialization of the industry by gradually diminishing the agents’ role. The bureaucracy involved in the manual application allowed agents to act as intermediaries, enabling them to earn huge profits. Throughout Malaysia, the process could be conducted only at the immigration headquarters, Putrajaya. Employers who abided by the law were forced to line up as early as 3 a.m. to apply for foreign workers’ permits at Putrajaya. After the daily quota was filled, those still in line had to return the next day. The government was thus urged to change the application process to an online system (Malaysia 2016d, 51). More employers were hiring workers without permits because of the rigidity of the manual system. When the employers did not renew expired permits, their workers became overstaying aliens. As penalties, the law stipulated a fine of up to MYR10,000, six months in jail, and whipping—but not all were applicable. It had become a state of affairs “that [indicated a] total collapse of the law” (Malaysia 2016c, 34–35).

The Foreign Workers Centralised Management System (FWCMS) was introduced on June 15, 2015 to process applications for foreign worker visas and health status clearances. The Malaysian Immigration Department’s move toward a fully electronic system aimed to improve efficiency in visa applications while eliminating intermediaries and hidden charges. The use of the eVDR (visa with a reference) became compulsory for foreign worker visa applications, including the purchase of insurance policies. Foreign workers were required to undergo health screenings in registered clinics equipped with the BioMedical system to eliminate incidents of fraud. After the implementation of the new system, the Immigration Department no longer accepted manual applications (Zolkepli 2015).

The online renewal of work permits represents another reform toward eliminating intermediaries. Since 2015 the renewal of the foreign worker permit, called the Temporary Employment Visit Pass (Malaysian acronym PLKS), has been done online through a government-appointed private company, MyEG Services Bhd (My Electronic Government). The reform aims to address the issues of misappropriation and negative perceptions about the Malaysian Immigration Department, thus improving the quality of service delivery and effectively reducing congestion in the immigration office by 50 percent. Under the manual process, there were many allegations about officials and private agents exploiting the system. Employers paid agents between MYR300 and MYR500 for each worker, and these costs would subsequently be passed on to the workers. Thus, the new system prevents agents (both authorized and unauthorized) from extorting illegal commissions from employers and has diminished the allegations about immigration officers’ collusion with these agents (Malaysia 2015a, 4–5).

Moving forward, the government also introduced three online application systems for foreign workers on April 1, 2017 to ensure that both employers and foreign workers would no longer be cheated by third-party agents. The three online recruitment systems are the Integrated Foreign Workers Management System (ePPAx), SPPA, and MYXpats for expatriates. Each company needs to digitalize its information in the system, replacing the paperwork. The advantages include reduced costs, more convenience, and greater confidentiality. The whole recruitment process is now digitalized, from application to permit renewal and repatriation (Moh 2017). The SPPA system is for Bangladeshi workers only, while ePPAx is used for foreign workers from all other source countries. The ruling is mandatory for foreign workers in formal sectors (manufacturing, construction, services, plantations, and agriculture) but not in the informal sector (employing foreign maids). Digitalization eliminates the involvement of third parties, to prevent agents from taking advantage of poor migrant workers and overcharging employers. It curtails corrupt practices among officers and curbs the risks of migrant trafficking and abuse (Shahar 2017).

Direct hiring without agents was soon expanded to the recruitment of foreign maids. The government introduced an optional online system beginning January 1, 2018, which allowed employers to directly apply for foreign maid permits from the nine source countries: Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, Laos, Nepal, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Direct recruitment of domestic workers tackled the issue of human trafficking and reduced costs more than 50 percent, from MYR12,000 to MYR3,600. Alternatively, employers could still utilize agents, because the ruling was not compulsory (Sun Daily, November 1, 2017). Effective January 1, 2018, the new Maid Online System (SMO) was launched. It received a positive response. Within one week of its launch, 3,141 employers registered and 36 employers received their maids (Surach 2018).

The move toward digitalization and centralization would eventually result in the termination of recruitment agencies’ services. This was a disturbing development for the hiring agencies and the employers of foreign workers, who reacted negatively to the implementation of the FWCMS and the MyEG system. There were concerns about added costs, national security, and the monopoly of the FWCMS, developed by the private firm Bestinet Sdn Bhd, which had been contracted by the government. The use of the FWCMS was mandatory as all health check-up centers in the source countries were compelled to use the Bestinet system. Employment agencies in the source countries criticized both the BioMedical system and the eVDR for the increase in fees, from MYR15 to MYR250. Foreign governments, such as those of Nepal and Indonesia, threatened to stop sending their workers to Malaysia. The monopolization of the eVDR and the biometric system by Bestinet would expose foreign workers to human trafficking risks if the cost could not be monitored. As a result, the FWCMS, which came into effect on January 15, 2015, was suspended by the Immigration Department after two weeks of its operation, before resuming in June 2015 (Zachariah 2015).

The mandatory use of both the FWCMS and the MyEG online system was criticized not only by lawmakers but also by local Chinese businesses. The Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia (ACCCIM), representing over 28,000 Malaysian Chinese businesses, called on the government not to make it mandatory to use the FWCMS and the MyEG online system to renew the PLKS, claiming that both private firms were exploiting the services for profit. Additionally, both systems were still under the “proof of concept” and at the test-run stage. According to the ACCCIM, “The government can outsource the system to external specialised entities, but they should not outsource the power of approval to the respective third parties” (Borneo Post, January 29, 2015).

In the state of Sabah, the Association of Foreign Worker Hiring Agencies (PAPPAS) has supported the state government by managing the local recruitment industry for more than 20 years. Any termination of service would negatively affect the businesses of PAPPAS member agencies. PAPPAS urged the government to consider the difficulties that would be faced by its recruitment agencies (Gordon 2016). The implementation of the online system in Sabah would put 53 local agencies out of business, and their employers would also risk losing their livelihood. PAPPAS has 53 members that are legal recruitment agencies under the Private Employment Agencies Act 1981. For the past two decades, its member agencies have delivered effective services to all industry stakeholders: employers, employees, foreign companies that supply workers, the state government, and the source countries under the established system. The association objected to any monopolization of the business and urged the government to ensure that “they do not lose their bread and butter in favour of other companies that provide an online service” (Daily Express, September 15, 2016).

The government’s move to outsource the online permit renewal service to MyEG was perceived as an attempt to exercise some sort of monopoly, depriving other agents of their livelihood while allowing only one company to profit. Prior to 2015, some agencies helped employers manage all permits. The government’s sudden decision to outsource the online service resulted in a loss of business for all these agencies. The government was asked why it had delegated a revenue-generating service worth MYR73.6 million a year to a private company instead of having the Immigration Department deliver it: “Why do we outsource immigration service to one company and make it a monopoly? Why was this monopoly given to MyEG?” (Malaysia 2015b, 35–36). MyEG secured a five-year concession agreement (May 23, 2015–May 22, 2020) worth MYR553.85 million to provide online renewal of the PLKS for foreign workers (Ooi 2017). The government reiterated that outsourcing the MYR73.6-million-per-year service delivery to a company, rather than delegating it to immigration officials, would address the issues of misappropriation and negative perception about the Immigration Department (Malaysia 2015b, 36).

Changing the Gatekeeper Orientation

The gatekeeper orientation has been improved in two ways—involving the employers and the labor market. Employers are delegated more responsibilities under the newly introduced strict liability principle as a means to improve gatekeeping. Direct employment by employers through the online system can provide a better picture of the labor market demand in comparison to the manual process conducted by agents, which is inadequate for responding to labor market demand. It is noteworthy that employers are empowered under the state’s legalization program. Under the Rehiring Program, foreign workers must be present with their employers at the immigration office. Between February 15, 2016 and May 28, 2018, 83,919 employers participated in legalizing 744,942 undocumented immigrants through the three government-appointed vendors, 307,557 of 744,942 applicants qualified for legalization, 329,151 applications were in process pending biometric information, and 108,234 were rejected. The unqualified workers were processed for the repatriation program by employers and vendors (Star Online, June 2, 2018).

The strict liability principle is applied when foreign workers are brought in under the online recruitment process. Based on this principle, employers themselves apply for their required workers. Digitalization may contribute to foreign workers’ welfare; employers are fully responsible for each worker’s permit application and renewal online, making them accountable for irregularities in the recruitment process (Malaysia 2016a, 67). This system may be interpreted as a means to improve gatekeeping, where the liability is held by employers. Discussions are ongoing to implement the strict liability principle to ensure that employers will be more responsible for the welfare of their foreign workers, from the latter’s arrival until the end of their contracts. The employers’ responsibilities include providing accommodations, minimum wages, health insurance, and medical benefits and complying with international labor standards (Sun Daily, June 26, 2016).

The government decided to change the gatekeeper from the MOHA to the MOHR, signaling a reorientation of where the “gate” lies. In October 2018, Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced that foreign worker recruitment would be transferred to the MOHR’s Private Employment Agency in 2019. The decision was made during the meeting of the newly established Foreign Worker Management Special Committee under the Pakatan Harapan government. According to the committee’s deliberation, the outsourcing system would be discontinued gradually, and the services of one hundred outsourcing companies would be terminated (Tee 2018). According to the 11th Malaysia Plan, policy making for foreign worker management would be placed under a single administration, the MOHR. To ensure that employers would be fully responsible for the recruitment and welfare of their employees, the strict liability concept was embedded in the 11th Malaysia Plan (Malaysia, Economic Planning Unit 2015, ch. 5).

Replacing Agents with Government-Appointed Authorized Vendors

The renewal of foreign worker permits was undertaken by MyEG, which could not hire third-party agents. Despite the efforts to eliminate intermediaries, some cases of fraudulent agents were still reported. Some individuals claiming to be appointed agents cheated employers and immigrants, asking for deposits to legalize undocumented foreign workers when the deadline for the amnesty program approached (Civil Society Organisations 2018). Some syndicates were involved in PLKS forgery, charging employers MYR1,500 and acting as intermediaries submitting applications to the Immigration Department. For example, a Bangladeshi-led syndicate forged some of the PLKS documents, sending a few applications to the Immigration Department for approval. Employers were thus advised to submit their online PLKS applications directly, with lower charges (Sun Daily, October 17, 2017).

Similarly, the involvement of agents was also excluded from the state’s legalization program, called the Rehiring Program, to discourage profiteering. Instead of agents, the government appointed three third-party vendors to manage the program from February 15, 2016 to June 30, 2018. Iman Resources Sdn Bhd dealt with the legalization of Indonesian nationals, Bukti Megah Sdn Bhd handled Myanmar nationals, and MyEG was in charge of other nationalities. After the program ended, the Immigration Department took over all services related to foreign workers’ employment, and the services of the three vendors were terminated (Ragananthini 2018). Despite the widely known fact that no agents were involved in the Rehiring Program, the news media reported numerous cases of fake agents and syndicates operating the program. The syndicates promised valid work permits and employment to undocumented migrants for a fee of MYR8,000, even after the program deadline. For example, a syndicate operated by locals earned MYR2.2 million by cheating more than 270 foreign workers (Star Online, August 15, 2018).

A more worrying trend was some undocumented immigrants’ involvement in operating these counterfeit syndicates, deceiving their compatriots with promises of securing employment and work permit extensions. The existence of both local- and foreign-operated syndicates managing the legalization program without permits threatened national security. A Bangladeshi-owned company was reported to have been operating the Rehiring Program illegally for more than a year, disguised as a mini-market that was converted into an office (Sun Daily, July 6, 2018). According to the law, only authorized vendors and several of the company’s subsidiaries were allowed to manage the Rehiring Program. Raids conducted by the Immigration Department’s Intelligence, Special Operations, and Analysis Division found that the Rehiring Program syndicates’ activities were expanding. Some authorized company subsidiaries infringed immigration laws and abused the approval granted. False document agreements were made with factories, foreign workers’ applications were processed with dubious documents, and migrant workers became partners in some of the companies. In a raid on a rehiring syndicate in Selangor, 98 Bangladeshi and Indonesian passports and MYR250,000 in cash were seized (Teoh 2018).

Fake rehiring agents were responsible for otherwise eligible migrant workers’ missed opportunity to extend their employment in Malaysia. There was a news report about 270 Bangladeshi workers being swindled in the amount of MYR1.8 million by a fake rehiring agent. The Bangladeshi victims submitted their passports and paid MYR8,000 each to the agent to secure valid work permits before the Rehiring Program deadline. However, the agent failed to get back to them before the deadline passed, believing that these undocumented migrants would not report the case. Since they failed to be legalized under the program, these migrants were forced to return to their country (Zolkepli 2018). Labor agents and brokers thrived in the underground labor market, while employers got away with unpaid salaries. According to MP Charles Santiago, “We are yet to demonstrate a commitment to go after labour agents and brokers, who profit at the expense of these poor migrant workers” (News Hub 2018). Employer associations blamed third-party agents and government-appointed outsourcing companies. The Malaysian Trade Union Congress argued that irregularities caused by bringing in an excessive supply of foreign workers could be traced to these agencies. “They serve[d] as one-off suppliers” without ensuring the validity of these workers’ permits. For the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers, law enforcement left unscrupulous agents free to escape punishment (Teh and Shah 2018).

Law Enforcement and Regulating the Activities of Agents

The Immigration Department announced the launch of Ops Mega 3.0 to flush out irregular immigrants nationwide beginning on July 1, 2018, after the deadline of the Rehiring Program. The crackdown aimed to enforce the law on immigrants and their employers. Stubborn employers who protected, hired, and allowed irregular migrant workers to stay in their premises would be punished with a maximum fine of MYR50,000, imprisonment not exceeding a five-year term, and caning up to six strokes (Star Online, June 2, 2018). The Immigration Department’s director general justified the action against employers, reiterating that there would be no crackdown on foreign workers if employers hired them legally. There were legal channels for hiring workers, and employers must follow the requirements of the MOHA (Kumar 2018). Human Resources Minister M. Kulasegaran echoed the Immigration Department’s commitment to strictly enforce the law against errant employers, in line with the MOHR priorities of zero corruption and “meticulous enforcement.” In cooperation with the MOHA, the MOHR sought out stubborn employers (Sun Daily, June 4, 2018).

The failure to deal with the influx of illegal foreign workers discredited the performance of the previous government. The Barisan Nasional government promised to rid the country of illegal migrants through its declared “zero illegal immigrant” policy. However, the country was inundated by immigrants. Their overwhelming presence in the city of Kuala Lumpur has created the impression that local residents have become minorities in their own country. The Pakatan Harapan government is determined to “clean up” the country of illegal immigrants. In conjunction with Malaysia’s National Day on August 31, the Immigration Department pledged to “free” the country of undocumented immigrants. Enforcement operations were intensified after all the opportunities for registration and legalization of foreign workers ended on August 30, 2018 (Muhamading and Teh 2018).

The new nationwide enforcement operations (Ops Mega 3.0) were criticized by parliamentarians for targeting helpless victims and employers but not the perpetrators. The Pakatan Harapan coalition government was urged to target traffickers instead of cracking down on four million undocumented workers. The group of traffickers was identified as the root cause of the oversupply of foreign workers, who were victims of human trafficking syndicates and fraudulent agents. According to a Democratic Action Party lawmaker, three prioritized areas would bring greater benefits at lower costs: enforcing the law on human smugglers, protecting the victims, and preventing illegal entry (Malaysiakini 2018). Similarly, civil society organizations and migrant groups protested about Ops Mega 3.0, calling for comprehensive and holistic rights-based solutions. According to these groups, the operations were criminalizing foreign workers for offenses that were not their fault. Upon landing in Malaysia, many victims found their contracts, employment sites, and terms and conditions different from what they had been promised, resulting in violations of immigration laws, which were circumstances beyond their control. Among other measures, the migrant groups recommended the following: (1) suspending raids and operations, (2) making available Ops Mega 3.0’s standard operating procedure for conducting raids and detaining undocumented migrant workers, (3) decriminalizing the “undocumented” status of workers, (4) facilitating G2G hiring mechanisms, (5) stopping the blacklisting of migrant workers who used the 3+1 amnesty program, and (6) ensuring that all migrants would have access to justice and the right to redress (Civil Society Organisations 2018).

The penalty regime against errant employers was stepped up, following the end of the Rehiring Program on June 30, 2018. Employers who failed to settle their fines after this date were blacklisted, banned from leaving the country, and barred from any dealings with the Immigration Department until they had settled their fines, a ruling that outraged them. From the point of view of the Immigration Department, the fines should have been paid when these employers legalized the workers. Employers were given an additional time frame until August 30, 2018 to settle outstanding penalties. The move provoked negative responses from the Malaysian Employers Federation, which lamented that these employers had already registered their undocumented workers and that the Immigration Department should not focus on penalizing employers. The Asean Traders Association stated that it was “excessive to impose compounds on business,” which was already having difficulty surviving. Both organizations opposed the monetary fines imposed for hiring undocumented workers (Kumar and Chung 2018). The construction and service sectors were facing shortages of site workers, who went into hiding as the crackdown continued, affecting Malaysia’s economy. The continuous and consistent crackdown frustrated employers, especially those operating small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). According to the SME Association of Malaysia, SMEs paid the agents under the Rehiring Program but did not have their undocumented workers legalized. They blamed these agents, saying, “Agents just want to make the money” (Goh, Melissa 2017).

Criminalizing workers and later employers did not resolve irregularities created by the industry system itself. Migrant workers were turned into “profitable commodities” by recruitment agencies and failed by their exploitative employers. Enforcement did not solve the underlying problem; rather, it further alienated the migrants. An overhaul of the migrant labor management system would be much needed compared with the repeated cycles of legalization, amnesty, and crackdown (Sun Daily, June 6, 2018). Despite protests from migrant groups, it was doubtful that the Immigration Department would scale down its raids. In 2017 the department set a new target of 1,300 enforcement operations as its monthly key performance indicator (KPI) compared with its initial KPI of 850 operations (Goh, Pei Pei 2017).

Private Employment Agencies (Amendment) Act of 2017

In a move to ensure strict enforcement against illegal recruitment agencies, the Private Employment Agencies Act was revised again in 2017 after the 2005 amendment. It empowers the government to regulate recruitment activities conducted by PEAs and to protect local workers in Malaysia (Yong 2018). The Private Employment Agencies Act of 1981 governed the activities of PEAs and safeguarded the rights of job seekers. As of 2017, 1,003 PEAs were registered in peninsular Malaysia, 55 in Sarawak, and 117 in Sabah. The Private Employment Agencies (Amendment) Act of 2017 requires each PEA to have a valid license and prevents recruitment activities without a valid license. It involves amendments and replacements of 29 existing provisions, the creation of 24 new ones, and the abolition of 11 provisions. It aims to modernize PEA-related legislation to comply with current requirements, clarify the application of recruitment-related legislation covering foreign workers, and empower enforcement activities (Malaysia 2017b, 84–85).

Among the issues discussed during the second and third readings of the bill, a better protection mechanism against illegal recruitment agencies was brought up. Any party engaged in recruitment activities without a license was to be penalized with a fine not exceeding MYR200,000 or imprisonment not exceeding three years or both (Section 7). The imposition of this severe punishment prevents recruitment without a valid license, which can have a huge impact on victims, who are often associated with trafficking and forced labor (Malaysia 2017b, 87). A new 13D clause of this bill requires a licensed PEA company to provide an identification document to its employees responsible for recruitment activities; failure to do so will subject the party involved to a fine not exceeding MYR10,000. This provision was included because the enforcement revealed that some parties conducted recruitment activities illegally (Malaysia 2017b, 89).

Several new interpretations are stated in Section 3 of the bill. First, a “private employment agency means a body corporate incorporated under the Companies Act 2016 (Act 777) and is granted a licence under this Act to carry out recruiting activities” (Section 3a). This amendment of the interpretation requires any party applying for a PEA license to be a company registered under the Companies Act 2016. Second, an “employer means any person who engages a private employment agency to recruit an employee for himself” (Section 3g). This interpretation prevents outsourced labor in which the employer supplies the person recruited via the PEA to another employer. Third, “recruiting means activities which have been carried on by any person, including advertising activities, as intermediaries between an employer and a job seeker” (Section 3i). To facilitate monitoring and enforcement, the phrase “any person” includes private persons or organizations undertaking recruitment activities without PEA licenses (Malaysia 2017b, 86). To prevent PEAs from imposing high fees on job seekers and non-citizen employees, the bill stipulates that such agencies are only allowed to impose a registration fee and a placement fee as specified in the First Schedule (Sections 14a and 14b). Such agencies are required to deposit a money guarantee as specified, which will be utilized if the agency fails to fulfill its responsibilities to job seekers, non-citizen employees, and employers (Sections 14c and 14d).

Renegotiation with Labor-Supplying Countries in ASEAN

The de-commercialization approach has broader implications for anti-trafficking efforts and migrants’ protection. Ensuring a sound recruitment process is closely related to migrants’ protection and regional efforts to tackle human trafficking. The Malaysian migrant rights group Tenaganita criticized the use of private agencies because the latter were driven by profit. Profit-oriented outsourcing systems not only led to high recruitment fees but also posed the risk of corruption. The business-to-business recruitment model fostered human trafficking. According to Tenaganita’s Executive Director Glorene Das, “the logical solution would be an overhaul of the system to remove the focus on direct profiteering and increase regulation” (Soo 2018). The gradual termination of the outsourcing system and the shift to the G2G system are significant steps in combating human trafficking and foreign workers’ exploitation. Malaysia’s restructuring of its foreign labor recruitment addresses a critical problem in the migration industry by eliminating intermediaries, thus putting an end to debt bondage. Debt bondage is a form of modern-day slavery in which workers have to work excessive hours to pay back the high recruitment fees (Beh 2018).

Following the controversial G2G Plus involving Bangladesh and Nepal, Malaysia’s labor recruitment policies were renegotiated with the labor-supplying countries in ASEAN. On October 29, 2018, Nepal and Malaysia signed an improved MoU on worker recruitment, employment, and repatriation to address human trafficking and the exploitation of migrant workers. The new MoU adhered to the ILO’s guidelines, under which employers would bear the recruitment charges, two-way airfare, visa fees, health check-ups, accommodations, security screening, and levy charges. All the basic facilities would be provided to Nepali migrant workers with regard to their health insurance, accident insurance, and social security insurance. Workers would have the right to change jobs in case of their employers’ bankruptcy or labor exploitation. The workers’ salaries would be paid through a banking channel. Direct recruitment based on the G2G system was incorporated in the new MoU signed with Nepal, to be used as a model for other source countries (Poudal 2018). Most important, intermediaries would be eliminated. The Nepalese workers would be recruited directly through a G2G initiative, removing the moratorium placed by Nepal and resuming the flow of its workers, including domestic maids, to Malaysia (Rahim 2018b).

The Pakatan Harapan government after May 2018 has been renegotiating an improved and standardized MoU with other countries of origin. It is important to improve the MoUs as part of the efforts to curb human trafficking and the exploitation of workers. As of 2018, Malaysia’s status was downgraded to Tier 2 in the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report. If the status drops further to Tier 3, the country will face international sanctions and foreign countries will not be allowed to invest in Malaysia. The sanctions will have much more dire consequences compared with the increase in manufacturing costs and the prices of goods and services as a result of the new MoUs. Next, Malaysia negotiated with Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Vietnam, whose MoUs were expiring soon, to incorporate the ILO’s standard elements in their new MoUs (New Straits Times, November 28, 2018).

Shifting the recruitment costs from workers to employers is a step in the right direction, in line with the international standards outlined in the ILO Private Employment Agencies Convention, 1997 (No. 181), the ILO General Principles & Operational Guidelines for Fair Recruitment, and the International Organization for Migration International Recruitment Integrity System. A joint report by the International Organization for Migration and the ILO in 2017 suggested that “worker-borne recruitment costs should be eliminated in both countries of origin and destination” (Harkins et al. 2017, 90). On one hand, employers as the beneficiaries of the workers’ services should pay for the services. On the other hand, migrant workers are less likely to return home unless they have earned enough money to pay their incurred debts (Harkins et al. 2017, 90). The “employer pays” model of international labor recruitment would eliminate the exploitation of workers and further prevent the race to the bottom of working conditions (Nishimoto 2017).

Malaysian bilateral labor recruitment is moving toward regional efforts for the protection of migrant workers’ rights, as envisaged by ASEAN. In November 2017, the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers was signed as a result of deliberations during the ASEAN Labor Ministers’ Meeting. It outlined the fundamental rights of migrant workers and their family members, the specific rights of migrant workers, the obligations of the sending and receiving states, and the commitments of ASEAN members. It is a non-legally binding framework (ASEAN Secretariat News 2017). Chapter 4 of the document outlines the migrant workers’ specific rights, including access to information; an employment contract; fair treatment in the workplace; reasonable accommodations; fair remuneration; as well as the rights to transfer their earnings, file a complaint, and join trade unions (ASEAN 2017).

Conclusion: Discussion and Implications

This research offers a few implications of the recent shift to de-commercialization of the labor migration industry in Malaysia. De-commercialization signifies a fundamental shift in the government’s conceptualization of migrant workers, that is, labor migration is a long-term development issue rather than a security concern. This change in direction is demonstrated by overhauling the channel of legal migration and improving policy coordination in the migrant labor management regime. As argued by Lee Hwok-Aun, “the influx of foreign workers was motivated by the lucrative trade in migrant labour rather than demand for labour” (Lee 2017, 566). The profitable business generated by labor outsourcing, the contract labor system, and overtime work have perpetuated the market demand for migrant labor. The labor market structure itself has encouraged indirect employment and workers’ exploitation. Lee suggests that promoting mechanization and technological upgrading to replace foreign labor with automation, as outlined in the 11th Malaysia Plan, may overlook the fundamental factors driving the persistent dependence on foreign labor (Lee 2017, 566).

Malaysia’s policy context should be understood from the perspective of balancing between competing concerns: (1) fulfilling the nation’s economic needs versus avoiding employment discrimination against citizens, and (2) prioritizing security concerns versus meeting labor market demands. The move to de-commercialize the industry—with the G2G model, online hiring, digitalization of work permits, and eliminating the use of agents through improved MoUs—has shown that the government is indeed treating irregular migration as a labor market issue to be regulated by a state-level mechanism. Third-party involvement is detrimental to the balance of market power and causes an excessive labor supply. De-commercialization as a migration control strategy could be realized by de-privatizing the migration industry.

Unsuccessful attempts to de-privatize the recruitment industry in Malaysia since 1995 should be understood in relation to five factors: the historical role of outsourcing agents, the institutionalization of the outsourcing system, employers’ reliance on agents, poor gatekeeping in the labor market, and the government’s ineptitude in handling recruitment. The official policy declaring the phasing out of agents has not eliminated employers’ and workers’ dependence on agents. Instead, false syndicates have emerged. This culture of dependence on agents has become a deep-seated problem since the government’s phasing out of their services, and attempts to revamp the recruitment system into the G2G model have encountered challenges since 1995. The popular use of agents also explains the difficulty in efforts to de-privatize the migration industry. The tradition has been deeply rooted for several decades since the government formalized the outsourcing system through the Private Employment Agencies Act of 1981, amended the Act in 2005 and 2017, and further institutionalized the practice of outsourcing workers through the Employment Act (Amendment) of 2012.

The recent policy U-turn to a state-governed system (G2G) under the new government signaled a renewed interest in controlling the migrant labor sector, following the controversies over the G2G Plus deal. Facilitating the state-operated mechanism as the primary means of recruitment is important to discourage profiteering. The attempts to reduce the number of agents through the G2G Plus deal, as shown in the cases of Bangladesh and Nepal, failed to curb irregularities and resulted in bilateral tensions. The G2G Plus deal did not remove the business incentive, as the sole authorized agents monopolized the recruitment industry and were in a better position to impose higher costs with no competition from rivals. When the government sought to reduce the number of agents to a few authorized vendors, monopolization of the industry became a real problem. The Malaysian case shows that the group of authorized agents has indeed become a “big monopoly,” evidenced by delegating the recruitment of Nepalese and Bangladeshi workers to Bestinet and outsourcing permit renewal to MyEG. The replacement of agents with government-appointed vendors has been criticized by small agents and parliamentarians because certain parties have earned huge profits by bringing in and then sending back undocumented workers (Malaysia 2011a, 89). Outsourcing immigration functions to a few private agencies is viewed as a form of monopolization, closing opportunities for other agencies. This issue has raised the question of whether privatization of immigration functions is still appropriate in the Malaysian context when it is bound to lead to some sort of business monopolization and license abuses.

Accepted: October 23, 2019


The author wishes to thank the editorial board of Southeast Asian Studies and the anonymous reviewers for their invaluable comments and constructive critiques, without which this article would not be in its present form. The research was supported by Research University Grants (1001/PJJAUH/816294) provided by Universiti Sains Malaysia.


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Vol. 7, No. 3, AHMAD FAUZI Abdul Hamid


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 3

Shifting Trends of Islamism and Islamist Practices
in Malaysia, 1957–2017

Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid*

*School of Distance Education and Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti
Sains Malaysia, 11800 Penang, Malaysia
e-mail: afauzi[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.7.3_363

This article seeks to analyze the evolving development and contestations regarding the interplay of Islam and politics in Malaysia’s public space for a period of 60 years (1957–2017) since its independence as a nation-state. A crucial element in this discourse is the official position of Islam as the “religion of the federation” in the Malaysian Constitution, which simultaneously guarantees the freedom of other religions embraced by almost half of the country’s population. The population became even more diverse ethnically and religiously upon the formation of the Federation of Malaysia, which replaced Malaya, on September 16, 1963. Closely related to the discourse of political Islam in Malaysia, the evolving concepts of “religion” and “secularism” in Malaysia’s Islamic context have undergone considerable shifts as a result of constant public engagement by an assortment of politicians, commentators, scholars, bureaucrats, and civil society activists. As the argument develops, Malaysia’s interaction with Islam has been essentialized by political interests such that boundaries are hardened between what is considered Islamic and un-Islamic. The increasingly rigid positions adopted by Islamic stakeholders have arguably worsened both interreligious and intra-Muslim relations, with progressive Muslim voices increasingly finding themselves marginalized in the state-controlled political environment.

Keywords: Islam, Islamism, political Islam, Malaysia, secularism, Mahathir Mohamad, Federal Constitution, hudud, Salafi


A “plural society” par excellence (Rabushka and Shepsle 1972, 20), Malaysia1) gained independence from Britain on August 31, 1957 as the Federation of Malaya. The majority Malays, who are constitutionally defined as Muslims, consistently constitute between 50 percent and 60 percent of the total population, but their numerical dominance does not easily translate into political hegemony. Belying Malaysia’s reputation as a Muslim-majority stronghold of Islam in Southeast Asia, where the position of Islam is protected by the state, the country’s political positions on Islam, even among its Muslim populace, display a great deal of diversity in spite of state-orchestrated attempts to homogenize Islam in both theory and practice. Malaysia’s fragile ethnic composition has meant that ethno-religious demands in favor of greater Islamic input in governance have always faced challenges not only from the non-Muslim minorities but also from Muslims of varying orientations with respect to Islam.

In colonial Malaya, secularization, understood primarily in terms of enforced separation between religion and state in the British-administered body politic, acquired inexorable momentum with the signing of the Anglo-Perak Treaty in Pangkor in 1874. This Pangkor accord stipulated that Malay Sultans seek and act upon a British Resident’s advice on all matters except Malay religion and custom. A succession of legal, administrative, and educational reforms followed throughout Malaya as other Malay states concluded similar agreements with the colonial authorities, the net effect of which was to sideline the role of Islam in colonial governance (Ahmad Fauzi 2004, 22–30).

Promulgation of a Federal Constitution in 1957, by crystallizing such separation between religion and state, effectively established secularism as a governing principle despite no explicit verbal reference to it (Rosenthal 1965, 288). Although the word “secular” is not mentioned in the constitution, the secular basis of an independent Malaya was arguably affirmed by parties deliberating the drafting of the document. Tunku Abdul Rahman (1903–90), leader of the Alliance coalition and later the first prime minister of independent Malaya, assured fellow members among the Working Party who reviewed the draft prepared by the British-appointed Reid Commission that the whole exercise of framing the constitution was undertaken on the understanding that the resultant federation would be a secular state (Fernando 2006, 259–260, 265–266).

Article 3(1) of the Federal Constitution pronounces that “Islam is the religion of the Federation but that other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation” (Malaysia 1998, 1). As clarified by a legislative white paper, however, such a declaration in no way affected Malaya’s position as a “secular state.” This status was later affirmed by serving chief justices’ statements and judgments qualifying the meaning of Islam’s formal status as pertaining to rituals and ceremonies on official occasions rather than being prioritized over the secular legislative framework (Suffian Hashim 1962, 8–11; Ahmad Ibrahim 1985, 213–216; Fernando 2006, 250, 262). Article 3(1), moreover, has to be read together with Article 3(4): “Nothing in this Article derogates from any other provision of this Constitution” (Malaysia 1998, 1). Freedom of religion is guaranteed by Article 11, according to which every individual has the right to profess, practice, and propagate his or her own religion although the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among Muslims may be legally controlled or restricted, and all religious groups possess authority to manage their own religious affairs, to establish and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes, and to acquire, possess, hold, and administer property in accordance with the law (ibid., 6–7).

Since the premiership of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad (1981–2003), totally new contexts concerning the political role of Islam in defining Malaysia’s character and trajectory as a nation-state, with a special focus on the country’s purported transformation into an Islamic state and ramifications arising from the ascendancy of Islamism—referring to a political ideology that demands true Muslims seek to establish a juridical Islamic state governed by the sharia (Islamic law) in order to realize the ideals of Islam as a complete way of life (din al-hayah)—have appeared in Malaysia’s Islamic discourse. This article discusses the narrowing of the social space in the practice of Malaysian Islam as reflected in government policies and how interested parties constitutionally interpret them. It traces the ways and means of shifts in the understanding and practice of Islam in a more overtly politicized sense, with potentially devastating consequences on the sociocultural fabric of Malaysia’s plural society.

Political Islam in Postcolonial Malaysia: An Overview

In most postcolonial Muslim states, the delinking between Islam and governance of new nation-states was embodied in the subordination of the sharia to the broader national legal system. A residue of the sharia, catering for Muslim family and personal needs, was reformulated into and codified as a set of Muslim laws tailored to suit particularistic interests rather than all-encompassing Islamic requirements. The framework of reference for post-independence sharia-based Muslim lawyers was the nation-state, in which Islamic laws were subordinated to civil laws rather than the umma (global Muslim community) (Hooker 2004, 199).

Tacit collusion between the colonial masters and the “rightist” stream of Malay nationalists, overwhelmingly consisting of English-educated bureaucratic elites whose religio-political outlook was solidified in a secular environment, eventually delivered independence to Malaya (Ahmad Fauzi 2007a, 389). At the other end of the political spectrum was the “leftist” stream of Malay nationalists who had absorbed many facets of Islamic modernist-reformist discourse and whose take on religion and secularism was more sophisticated and less rigid. One such example was the consummate Malay politician-cum-thinker Dr. Burhanuddin Al-Helmy (1911–69), who saw Islamic political aspirations as blending both theocratic and secular ideals, “secular” insofar as they corresponded to Islamic doctrine that condones application of the rational faculty and democratic consultation known as syura (Kamarudin 1980, 209–210).

In the ethnically segmented society of pre-independence Malaya, Burhanuddin also adopted a less racialist and more open policy of absorbing non-Malays into the “Malay” category.2) This was vividly demonstrated in the 1947 People’s Constitutional Proposals, which he masterminded as leader of the Malay-dominated Pusat Tenaga Ra’ayat (Centre for People’s Power) in alliance with the non-Malay All-Malayan Council of Joint Action (Ahmad Fauzi 2011, 82). Unfortunately, despite having engendered a kind of pre-nationalism in the 1930s, by the 1940s modernism-reformism had lost most of its appeal among the lay Malay populace, eclipsed by the pressing need for political freedom under the general impression of an enveloping non-Malay threat to Malay hegemony (Ahmad Fauzi 2007a, 381). From 1956 until Burhanuddin’s death in 1969, his political talent was channeled to society in his capacity as president of the Pan-Malayan Islamic Party, later known as the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia).

Insofar as the secular relates to this world rather than the next one, the corporeal rather than the metaphysical realm, the Federal Constitution exhibits unabashedly secular characteristics. For instance, rather than being upheld for its intrinsic value as a faith that connects humans with God, Islam is foregrounded to serve a secular purpose, i.e., that of ethno-culturally determining the identity of a “Malay” as defined in Article 160(2): “a person who professes the Muslim religion, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay custom” (Malaysia 1998, 113). Through Article 153 Malays, together with natives of Sabah and Sarawak following the formation of Malaysia in 1963, are regarded as the indigenous Bumiputera (lit.: sons of the soil) group, who qualify for secular benefits under the “special position” clause (Means 1978, 393–394; Malaysia 1998, 107).

Under the “Bargain of 1957” the aforesaid privileges, together with provisions to ensure the position of Islam as the religion of the federation, of Malay Sultans as heads of the various states, and of Malay as the national language, were quid pro quos for non-Malay demands for relaxed conditions for citizenship, the continued use of the English language in official matters for 10 years, and the preservation of the free market economy (Milne and Mauzy 1986, 28–30). As with other temporal matters, the terms of the Bargain were understood by interested parties of the time to be temporary, i.e., not binding beyond prevailing circumstances where socioeconomic segmentation along ethnic lines was widespread (see Chapter 9). Buoyed, however, since the late 1970s by UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) calls for defending “Malay supremacy” (Ketuanan Melayu)—a notion that appeared only after the New Economic Policy (NEP) had institutionalized affirmative action to empower Bumiputera (Ariffin 2003), the Bargain acquired socio-psychological standing as a “social contract,” a transgression of which was considered to be betraying the terms and conditions on which the nation was supposed to have been founded (Puthucheary 2008, 12–23). This period when the NEP was nearing its end in 1990 coincided with the height of Islamic resurgence in Malaysia (Nagata 1984; Chandra 1987), so much so that Malay supremacy was often conflated as Islamic dominance in spite of the concept’s religiously spurious basis (Muhammad Haniff 2007, 294, 306).

In the immediate post-independence period, the position of Islam as amounting to no further than the country’s official religion was upheld by UMNO leaders such as Tunku Abdul Rahman, who asserted, “. . . this country is not an Islamic State as it is generally understood, we merely provide that Islam shall be the official religion of the State” (quoted in Ahmad Ibrahim 1985, 217; cf. Tunku Abdul Rahman 1977, 246). Jurisdiction over Islam was left to the various states that formed the federation, each of which instituted a Council of the Islamic Religion (Majlis Agama Islam) to aid and advise their Malay rulers in their capacity as heads of the Islamic religion,3) a Department of Religious Affairs (Jabatan Agama Islam) to handle daily affairs of Muslims, and sharia courts to adjudicate in Muslim matters (Ahmad Ibrahim 1985, 216). The authority of the sharia courts covers only Muslim personal law—a successor to the Muhammadan law of the colonial era, subsuming only family law, charitable property, religious revenue, places of worship, and religious offenses such as adultery and other forms of sexual misconduct, defamation, non-payment of alms, and consumption of liquor (Abdul Majeed 1985, 229–235). Even then, sharia courts can only mete out punishments that do not go beyond the stated maximum imprisonment or fine under federal law, making it impossible for them to impose the Quranic hudud4) code. The restrictions on sharia courts, collectively known as the 3-6-5 safeguards, ensure that punishments they impose do not exceed a maximum of three years’ imprisonment, six strokes of the cane, and RM5,000 in fines (Abdul Hadi 2002, 30).

On account of such limitations, Malaysia’s sharia doyen Ahmad Ibrahim held the view that “the provision that Islam is the religion of the Federation” was of little consequence (Ahmad Ibrahim 1974, 6–7, 11–13). In fact, prior to the onset of Islamic resurgence, the general consensus was that Malaysia’s politico-legal makeup was secular in intent even if not fully secular in practice by virtue of the various ways in which the powers that be applied Article 3(1) to their political advantage (Norani et al. 2008, xvi–xvii). Nowhere in the Federal Constitution is it mentioned that law in Malaysia is interpreted by recourse to sharia; on the contrary, Article 160(2) defines law as including “written law, the common law in so far as it is in operation in the Federation or any part thereof, and any custom or usage having the force of law in the Federation or any part thereof” (Malaysia 1998, 113). What Malaysia operates is a hybrid system in which there is a gray line between secularity and Islamicity.

However, as judges whose educational experience coincided with the period of Islamic resurgence gradually entered the judiciary, more court rulings departed from the traditional view of Islam’s constricted role within Malaysia’s constitutional framework, to the extent of compromising constitutionally guaranteed fundamental liberties (see Chapter 6). In his 2001 High Court ruling in Lina Joy v Majlis Agama Islam Wilayah & Anor, Justice Faiza Tamby Chik (2004, 128), despite acknowledging the existence of a previous case that established Malaysia as a secular state permitting the implementation of sharia laws insofar as they did not contradict the Federal Constitution, adopted the trailblazing view that

Article 3(4) does not have the effect of reinforcing the status of the Federation as a secular state. . . . Malaysia is not purely a secular state like India or Singapore but is a hybrid between the secular state and the theocratic state. The constitution of this hybrid model accord [sic] official or preferential status to Islam but does not create a theocratic state like Saudi Arabia or Iran. . . . Article 3(1) has a far wider and meaningful purpose than a mere fixation of the official religion. (Faiza 2004)

Faiza’s verdict opened the floodgates for a flurry of rulings that broadened the interpretation of Article 3(1) such that serious doubts were thrown on Malaysia’s “secular state” status. As the argument goes, although the Federal Constitution refrains from explicitly mentioning Malaysia as an Islamic state, the fact that it authorizes the setting up and management of Islamic institutions and the enactment of Islamic by-laws by state assemblies is proof that Malaysia cannot be categorized as a secular state (cf. Norizan 2007; Zainul Rijal and Nurhidayah 2007; Aidil 2014; Concerned Lawyers for Justice 2014). As the legal expert Shad Saleem Faruqi (2005, 270–275) notes, the existence of constitutional provisions that institutionally empower Islam, such as those that legitimize the posts of mufti5) and kadi6) and enable the federal government to disburse preferential funds toward the advancement of Islam, would be impossible in a secular state. Article 11(4) even mandates state legislatures and parliament in the case of federal territories to “control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam” (Malaysia 1998, 107). In 1988 a landmark decision was made by amending Article 121 so as to include clause (1A), which prevented federal courts from exercising any “jurisdiction in respect of any matter within the jurisdiction of the Syariah courts” (ibid., 79). Article 121(1A) effectively raised the status of sharia courts and judges to be on a par with their civil counterparts. However, within one decade it had caused disquiet among non-Muslims following a spate of high-profile court cases involving disputed conversions into and out of Islam and claims made by state Islamic authorities to bodies of the alleged converts upon their deaths, on which civil courts were reluctant to interfere, thus leaving non-Muslim litigants with no legal recourse (Ooi 2007, 184–186; Marzuki 2008, 162–169, 172–181).

The shift in legal thinking toward a more all-encompassing understanding of Islam as pertaining to the constitution appeared to have been triggered by greater political will on the part of ruling politicians. At the peak of his power in September 2001, having outflanked a determined challenge to his rule from his former deputy Anwar Ibrahim—whom he had dismissed from UMNO and the government three years earlier—Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad shockingly declared in front of delegates to the annual assembly of UMNO’s coalition partner Malaysian People’s Movement (GERAKAN, Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia) that Malaysia had, to all intents and purposes, already become an Islamic state. Astonishing as it was, one should not ignore the fact that immediate political calculations were foremost in Mahathir’s mind. Mahathir’s declaration was merely a direct response to PAS President Fadzil Noor’s challenge (Liew 2007, 112–113) and intended to pinch the Islamic state agenda away from PAS, whose collaboration with Anwar Ibrahim’s National Justice Party (KEADILAN, Parti Keadilan Nasional)7) and the non-Muslim dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) had eroded a huge chunk of Malay Muslim votes from UMNO and the National Front (BN, Barisan Nasional) ruling coalition in the 1999 general election (Maznah 2003, 75–79).8)

Indications that Mahathir was bracing for his Islamic state pronouncement may be found in an Islamic State Discussion (Muzakarah Daulah Islamiah) hastily convened slightly over a month earlier and chaired by his religious adviser, Dr. Abdul Hamid Othman. Gathering 70 religious scholars and notables, the Muzakarah concluded that Malaysia unequivocally qualified as an Islamic state on the basis that its administrative, political, and religious affairs were controlled by Muslims, regardless of whether hudud was implemented or not (Saifulizam 2001; JAKIM 2008). That Mahathir was being politically expedient more than anything else is underlined by his insistence that despite his declaration, non-Muslims had every right to continue to perceive Malaysia as being a secular state (Asuki and Nizam 2001). The Islamic state he had in mind, in other words, was not meant to be generically applied to all. Exploiting the Islamic sentiments of the Malay Muslims, it was a rhetorical device to convince them that Islam and their fate were safe in the hands of UMNO. In June 2002 Mahathir reinforced his stance by projecting Malaysia to be a “model Islamic fundamentalist state” rather than a “moderate Muslim state” (Ooi 2006, 176).

Nonetheless, Mahathir’s Islamic state pretensions emboldened a host of doctrinaire Islamists,9) many of whom were by now part of the Islamic bureaucracy which had expanded by leaps and bounds during his tenure in power (Norani et al. 2005, 90–91; Maznah 2013), to discursively essentialize Islam and secularism in bifurcated terms as binary opposites of one another. In the public space, concepts and ideologies such as “secularism,” “liberalism,” “humanism,” “capitalism,” and “pluralism” were being played out as antitheses to Islam, carrying similar “anti-religious” baggage (cf. Mohamed Elfie 2008; Soon 2008).

Amendments to extant statutory laws were justified by recourse to the sharia as the Grundnorm or “cardinal foundational principle” with supposed eternal authority over Malay Muslims (Norani 2008, 46–47). Islamism, referring to a political ideology that urges Muslims to erect a sharia-governed Islamic state in order for them to be able to comprehensively practice Islam as a way of life (din al-hayah), was bringing the two hitherto political foes, UMNO and PAS, closer together ideologically, in fact close enough to alarm non-Muslim civil society and political leaders into mobilizing openly against the very idea of an Islamic-oriented polity (Riddell 2005, 182–184). In defense of non-Muslim rights, religious Christians, for instance, were cornered into a position of unabashedly defending the secular state, as defined in contradistinction to an Islamic state (Yeoh 2011, 87–93). UMNO-PAS convergence on Islamist matters appeared in the form of a discursive shift from whether Malaysia should be an Islamic state, to when and how an Islamic state could be achieved to best serve the Malay Muslims (Kessler 2008, 63–64).

Mahathir’s successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s promotion of Islam Hadhari (civilizational Islam)10) during his premiership (2003–9) failed to defuse the polarizing polemic pitting the Islamist and secularist camps. Deprived of intellectual credibility and perennially suffering from poor implementation and weak infrastructural support from the government’s own Islamic officialdom, Islam Hadhari lost the discursive battle against an ascendant Islamist conservatism which perceived Islam Hadhari as a re-incarnation of “liberal Islam” (ibid., 71–76; Ahmad Fauzi and Muhamad Takiyuddin 2014). Haji Abdul Hadi Awang (hereafter Haji Hadi), who assumed the leadership of PAS in 2003, castigated Islam Hadhari as being a “hybrid religion” that permitted the simultaneous practice of compartmentalized Islam alongside un-Islamic elements and was thus a potentially deviant bid’ah (religious innovation) (Abdul Hadi 2005, 24–34, 50, 90, 130, 196). In response to Islam Hadhari, Haji Hadi outlined four defining features of an Islamic state that he claimed were derived from the Quran and Prophet Muhammad’s traditions: a congregation (jamaah) that upholds Islam as the state creed and internalizes it in individual and social lives; an independent and sovereign country; a constitution that exalts the sharia; and citizens administered by Islamic laws’ absolute justice regardless of their religious affiliation (ibid., 54–55). Haji Hadi’s Islamist vision manifestly rules out any legal dualism such as that which Malaysia has been practicing in some jurisdictional areas since independence.

Abdullah Badawi’s Western-educated deputy, Najib Razak, aggravated the developing tension by categorically affirming Malaysia’s Islamic state status to the point of denying that Malaysia had ever been—or would ever be—a secular state, igniting protests from non-Muslim religious and political leaders (Lim 2008; Norani 2008, 49–50; Tan 2008). While Abdullah quickly tried to mitigate the damage by repudiating both a theocratic and secular state designation for Malaysia (Vinesh 2007), the country’s chief justice and attorney general appeared more willing to act on Najib’s than Abdullah’s cue. The chief justice and attorney general floated the idea of a sharia-based code to supplant English common law as the basis of Malaysia’s legal system, triggering voices of disapprobation from the Bar Council, among others (Koshy 2007; Norila 2007; Star Online 2007). As the golden jubilee of Malaysia’s independence neared, Faruqi (2007) summed up the worrying state of affairs enveloping Malaysia’s legalscape:

. . . a critical mass of Muslim lawyers, judges and politicians has adopted the view that Islam is the core, central, overriding feature of the Constitution. . . . State Assemblies have been enacting laws and authorising administrative actions that violate the human rights guarantees of Articles 5–13, imposing penalties far beyond their powers, and trespassing on federal jurisdiction. Because all this is done in the name of religion, politicians look the other way. Most judges are reluctant to test these laws or actions on the yardstick of the Constitution. Painful dilemmas are arising in cases where one of the litigants is Muslim and the other non-Muslim. (Faruqi 2007)

Paradoxically, the Malaysian-style shariaization, understood here as the institutionalization of sharia-based values, norms, and categories in the discourse and practice of Malaysia’s legal corpus, was proceeding apace while the country’s sharia institutions were still very much part of the larger constitutionally mandated judicial framework (Ahmad Fauzi 2016a, 32). The gradual incorporation and codification of sharia-based statutes were dependent on secular structures, personnel, and rationalization, hence enabling one to question whether Malaysia’s sharia laws, having themselves been subjected to secularization, were fit to be accorded a hallowed status (Maznah 2010, 512). Seven years after Malaysia’s 50-year anniversary of independence, the situation took a turn for the worse in Faruqi’s view:

Article 3(1) on Islam is trumping all other provisions of the Constitution, including the chapter on fundamental rights. . . . Are syariah authorities subject to the Federal Constitution? Or is it the case that once they invoke the holy name of Islam, hukum syarah [sic], fatwa or a State Syariah Enactment, they have a blank-cheque power to do whatever is necessary to promote good and prevent evil? (Faruqi 2014)

Efforts undertaken by PAS to implement hudud in the states it controlled—Kelantan (since 1990) and Terengganu (1999–2004)—similarly involve human agency. Opinions have diverged, for instance, on the suitability and timing as well as the nature and quantum of punishments prescribed by hudud laws (cf. Kamali 1998; Ahmad Fauzi 2009, 170–176). Even though political dynamics have been more important than one would imagine for issues as central to Malay-Muslim religious lives as that of installing “Divine law” (Ahmad Fauzi 2015), skeptics of hudud were lampooned as diehard defenders of secularism. The question of the extent to which hudud was urgent in a multireligious polity like Malaysia caused a huge split within the ranks of PAS during its General Assembly in June 2015, leading to PAS’s professional faction leaving the party en masse and forming a splinter party, Parti Amanah Negara (AMANAH, National Trust Party). Of the many allegations levelled by PAS President Haji Hadi against these deserters who formed AMANAH, the most serious was that they wanted to transform PAS into a secular party (Khalid 2015). In Malaysian Islamists’ imagination, hudud has now become the definitive criterion of an Islamic state, with increasing overlapping perspectives between PAS, UMNO, and religious bureaucrats (Norshahril 2014, 54–59).

After several abortive attempts during Najib’s premiership (since 2009) to introduce private members’ bills to pave the way for the implementation of hudud in Kelantan (Ahmad Fauzi 2015, 209–213), in late May 2016 Haji Hadi managed to present in parliament a bill that would dispense with the 3-6-5 safeguards. Dubbed the “hudud Bill,” the Sharia Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Bill 355 (RUU355, Rang Undang-undang 355) seeks to amend Section 2 of the Sharia Courts Act (Criminal Jurisdiction) 1965 (Act 355), thereby empowering sharia courts to mete out heavier penalties than imposed at present against Muslim perpetrators of offenses listed under Schedule Nine of the Federal Constitution, except the death penalty. Although the debating of the bill was postponed to the next parliamentary session, the fact that it could make itself heard on the final day of the parliamentary session, jumping the queue over government bills listed in the Standing Order, was by itself unprecedented. Speculation had been rife for months that relations between Najib Razak and Haji Hadi had warmed to such an extent that PAS might cooperate with BN after the breakup of the People’s Pact (PR, Pakatan Rakyat) coalition, but their tacit collusion over the tabling of RUU355 still caught UMNO’s non-Muslim coalition partners by surprise (Chan and Mazwin 2016; Cheng et al. 2016).

The latest hudud affair has driven the wedge further between advocates of the secular state on one side of the religio-political divide and its opponents on the other, with non-Muslim members of Najib’s cabinet even threatening to resign should RUU355 be passed. This was despite Najib’s and PAS’s assurances that RUU355’s contents did not amount to hudud and would not affect non-Muslims (Adam 2016; Hanis 2016). As far as detractors of RUU355 are concerned, the whittling away of secularism implicit in RUU355’s breaching of constitutional guarantees for equal protection of citizens before the law would constitute a fundamental change to Malaysia’s politico-legal structure, thus paving the way for it to become a full-fledged Islamic state in the future (cf. Mohamad Siddiq and Fatihah 2016; Singh 2016; Star Online 2016).

Political Islam and Its Discontents: Shifts in Islamist Approaches and State-Led Practices of Islamism in Post-Mahathir Malaysia

Over the last two decades, religio-political discourse in Malaysia has ossified in a manner that pits Islam (read: Islamism) and secularism against each other as binary opposites, as institutionally represented in a juridical Islamic state and Malaysia’s extant federal state respectively. Society has been polarized along this line, with support for each camp cutting across partisan affiliations. If we take the two extremes of the opposite poles, the ideological positions of PAS under Haji Hadi’s leadership and the avowedly secular DAP have reached such irreconcilable proportions that the Anwar Ibrahim-led PR coalition, which both parties participated in and through which they contributed to the opposition’s electoral advances in the 2008 and 2013 general elections, broke up in June 2015.

To Haji Hadi, secularism is intimately connected to Christianity in deviant form, Freemasonry, a global Zionist conspiracy, and colonialism (Abdul Hadi 2007, 9–16). Tracing the origins of secularism in the umma to the colonial era, the separation of religion and state and the privatization of religion represent the most damaging aspects of secularism on Muslim lives (Abdul Hadi 2008, 173). Haji Hadi is the author of an infamous 1981 tract, Amanat Haji Hadi (Haji Hadi’s mandate), which has been blamed for causing rampant Malay-Muslim disunity by effectively apostatizing UMNO members for retaining an infidel constitution and separating religion from politics (Badlihisham 2009, 67–73). Despite receiving sustained rebukes over violence allegedly arising from the Amanat’s inflammatory message, Haji Hadi has never disowned it. In a treatise defending the Amanat, Haji Hadi lambasted secularism for dragging Muslims into committing greater idolatry (Arabic: shirk Akbar)—an unpardonable sin in Islam. It was obvious, though, that the secularism Haji Hadi had in mind was the hard anti-religion version practiced by Kemal Ataturk (1881–1938) in early-twentieth-century Turkey (Abdul Hadi 2002, 26–27). In his refutation of Islam Hadhari, Haji Hadi referred to the thoughts of, among others, the Indo-Pakistani Islamist thinker Abul A’la Maududi (1903–79), whose thinking has been influential in shaping the minds of generations of Malaysian Islamists (Kamal Hassan 2003, 430–440), and the Egyptian Ikhwan al-Muslimun (MB, Muslim Brotherhood) ideologue Sayyid Qutb (1906–66), who was himself ideologically influenced by Maududi (Abdul Hadi 2005, 20–21; Wiktorowicz 2005, 78).

It has been noted, however, that in Maududi’s worldview secularism is understood as a “religionless” ideology or one embodying “irreligiousness” and is thus but another expression of infidelity (Arabic: kufr) (Adams 1983, 103, 113–114; Mazhari 2012, 66–67). This Maududi-cum-Qutb strand of Islamism, embracing a Manichean worldview between good (read: Islam) and evil (read: ignorance [jahiliyyah], aka non-Islam) and elevating sharia as part of belief (aqida), opened the door for takfir—the excommunication of unobservant Muslims (Mohamad Fauzi 2007, 58, 102–109, 132–133). Qutb-cum-Maududi’s Islamist formulations dominated the agendas of usra11) sessions—frequently more powerful in impact than classroom-based religious lessons, in schools, colleges, and universities. Left uncontrolled, such radical Islamism could provoke rebellion and instigate violence, as when a group of PAS villagers in Memali, Kedah, ideologically driven by Amanat Haji Hadi, were involved in a bloody showdown with security forces in November 1985, resulting in 18 deaths (Ahmad Fauzi 2007b, 10–16).

Apart from the Qutb-cum-Maududi framework, another underlying influence behind the Amanat’s takfiri disposition came from the writings of Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz (1910–99), who became mufti of Saudi Arabia in 1993–99 (Abdul Rahman 1998, 363). It was at the hands of the growing numbers of Saudi alumni in Malaysia that Malaysian Islam became gradually Salafized, referring to the exclusivist trend closely connected to Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi12) school, which seeks to emulate the pious salaf generations who lived within 300 years of the Prophet Muhammad’s demise. Powered by Saudi petro-dollars, the impact of Salafization has been deadly to the type of tolerant Islamic discourse that was once the distinctive feature of Malaysian Islam. The tenors of both interreligious and intra-Islamic relations have been marred as Salafi-centric ulama increasingly influenced policy making by penetrating UMNO and Malaysia’s Islamic bureaucracy (Mohamed Nawab 2014). At the grassroots level, Salafi discourse in contemporary Malaysia is propped up by such nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as the Ibn Qayyim Institute (IQ Malaysia n.d.), the Association of Malaysian Scholars (ILMU, Pertubuhan Ilmuan Malaysia) (ILMU n.d.), Al-Khaadem Association (Pertubuhan Al-Khaadem n.d.), and Al-Nida’ Welfare Organization (Pertubuhan Kebajikan Al-Nidaa’ Malaysia n.d.), and championed by such figures as the two-term Perlis mufti Dr. Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, prominent missionary of Chinese descent Hussain Yee, and UMNO Youth executive committee member Dr. Fathul Bahri Mat Jahaya (Ahmad Fauzi 2016b). Mohd Asri, Hussain and Fathul Bari effectively helm the Ibn Qayyim Institute, Al-Khaadem Association, and ILMU respectively.

While Qutb’s and Maududi’s visions dominated the mindsets of Malaysia’s mainstream Islamists in the 1970s–1980s, such as the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM, Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia), which Anwar Ibrahim led from 1974 to 1982 (Abdul Rahman 1998, 389), their radical perspectives were balanced by an eclectic reading of thoughts of other scholars such as Syed Naquib Al-Attas (b. 1931) and Ismail Raji Al-Faruqi (1921–86), both of whom laid rival claims as pioneers of the “Islamization of knowledge” project (Wan Mohd Nor 2005, 332–338). Both Al-Attas and Al-Faruqi towered above others as intellectual mentors who shaped Anwar Ibrahim’s Islamist outlook (Esposito and Voll 2001, 181; Allers 2013, 46–48), but it was the latter who purportedly convinced Anwar to join UMNO and Dr. Mahathir’s government in 1982 in a strategy to Islamize the state from within (Badlihisham 2009, 50).

In their examination of Al-Attas’s and Al-Faruqi’s rival schemes, Rosnani Hashim and Imron Rossidy (2000, 37) conclude that both are guilty of overgeneralizing “the West as though composing of a particular school of thought, in particular the logical positivist.” While still bearing exclusive connotations, Al-Attas’s paradigm vis-à-vis Al-Faruqi’s is philosophically “more elaborate and convincing” and his definition of Islamization of knowledge “more coherent and more rooted in the theory of Islamization in general”—not least due also to his methodological incorporation of the Islamic mystical tradition or Sufism (Arabic: tasawwuf). By contrast, Al-Faruqi and Maududi display antipathy toward such spirituality (Rosnani and Imron 2000, 33, 35–36). However, in practice, the educational principles of Al-Faruqi and Maududi rather than Al-Attas prevailed among Malaysian policy makers in the form of the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM), founded in 1983 as a model Islamic university that promotes integrative knowledge interrogated through the prisms of Islamic values and epistemology (Moten 2006, 190–191). Al-Faruqi enjoyed close relations with both Anwar Ibrahim and Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, during whose premiership Malaysia co-opted Islamization as part of its national zeitgeist (Milne and Mauzy 1983; Allers 2013, 72; Schottmann 2013, 61).

As for Al-Attas, whose work Islam and Secularism—originally published in 1978 by ABIM—has reached iconic status in the worldview of Malaysia’s Islamist activists (Norshahril 2012, 109–110), he was given carte blanche in 1987 to develop his brainchild, the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC), a research centre for excellence affiliated to IIUM. Such cordial relations with the government made him vulnerable to criticism of being an apologist for state-centric Islamism (Farish 2009, 215–216). Despite hardly making any direct reference to the concept of an Islamic state, Al-Attas’s epistemological deconstruction of such concepts as secularism and secularization has been cited time and again by Islamists as the intellectual justification for the erection of an Islamic moral and political order uniquely derived from Islamic, as opposed to secular, origins (Azhar 2016). Al-Attas’s discourse became a tool to legitimize the Islamist initiatives of the Malaysian state under Dr. Mahathir’s premiership (1981–2003), particularly during the years of Anwar Ibrahim as minister of education (1987–91) and deputy prime minister (1994–98). Decrying the misappropriation of his attacks on secularism and secularization for political purposes rather than as the philosophical program Islamization of knowledge was intended to be, Al-Attas (1993, xv) later admitted that Islam recognized no dichotomy between the sacred and profane and that an Islamic state could be neither wholly theocratic nor fully secular. Al-Attas’s version of Islamism was an attractive alternative to Maududi-Qutb’s scheme, which many Islamists had come to recognize as being way too radical for Malaysian Islam (Abdul Rahman 1998, 365), but it did not survive Anwar Ibrahim’s ejection from the ruling circle. In 2002 ISTAC’s autonomy within the IIUM structure was revoked and Al-Attas’s contract as ISTAC director was terminated, and in 2015 ISTAC effectively closed down following the absorption of all its programs by IIUM’s Faculty of Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences (Dalia 2016; IIUM n.d.a). Its replacement, the Ibnu Khaldun International Institute of Advanced Research, no longer adheres to Al-Attas’s lofty Islamist vision of producing a “good man” rather than merely a “good citizen” (Al-Attas 1984, 79–80; IIUM n.d.b).

At the other end of the political spectrum, in line with its post-2008 Malay outreach strategy, DAP revamped its political stance by dispensing with democratic socialism in favor of a more religion-friendly social democracy, and adopting a centrist “Middle Malaysia” posture that no longer questioned the constitutional positions of the Malays, Islam, and the national language (Lim 2010; Wan Hamidi 2011). While DAP remains vehemently opposed to an Islamic state as conventionally understood by Islamists (Lim 2002), it insists that it is far from being anti-Islam. The secular democratic governance that it espouses, long-time party supremo Lim Kit Siang explains, contrasts with typical notions of “secular”; it “is not atheist, anti-Islam, or anti-religion but trans-religion . . . a system of governance which upholds the spiritual and ethical values which are common to Islam and other great religions” (Lim 2001, 54, 73). Such a polity, claims Lim, would in fact be “morality-based and pro-Islam, pro-Christianity, pro-Buddhism, pro-Hinduism and pro-Sikhism in defending and enhancing the multi-religious characteristics and diversity of the Malaysian nation” (Lim 2012). While secularism à la DAP does not imply the relegation of religion to the private realm, it advocates state neutrality toward all religions—a notion that would incite protests from PAS, UMNO, and state-connected Islamists who demand that Islam be given a preferential position over other religions.

Importantly for the Malaysian context, DAP launched its own non-communalist vision of an Islamic polity by discursively engaging progressive Islamic intellectuals through the Penang Institute, a think tank of the Penang state government that DAP has controlled since March 2008 (Mustafa Kamal 2017). Although falling short of endorsing an Islamic state per se, DAP advances the idea of an Islam that is friendly to good governance, democracy, liberalism, and human rights, thus contesting the official state-sponsored discourse on Islam that often conflates Islamic sovereignty with Malay ethno-nationalist supremacy. As for its stance regarding hudud, DAP believes that its application in a modern context would be meaningless if higher objectives of the sharia (maqasid syariah)13) are not fulfilled (Zairil 2016). This position is in sync with the stance taken by Ismail Raji Al-Faruqi and Abdullah Badawi through his Islam Hadhari scheme (Ahmad Fauzi 2009, 178–179; 2016a, 36). In fact, DAP surmises that terms such as “secularism” and “liberalism,” unilaterally tagged to UMNO’s political rivals, have been deliberately made punching bags by ruling elites in a bid to frighten Malay Muslims from voting for opposition parties, for fear of getting entangled with “anti-Islamic” forces (Zairil 2014).

Interestingly, in adopting a maqasid-based approach to sharia, DAP has gravitated closer toward recent positions adopted by ABIM, AMANAH, and another professional-based Islamist movement, Pertubuhan IKRAM Malaysia—de facto successor of the Society for Islamic Reform (Jamaah Islah Malaysia), which effectively served as the channel through which student activists of the British-based Islamic Representative Council continued their Islamist struggle upon graduating and returning to Malaysia (Maszlee 2014; 2017). In line with the thought of veteran Tunisian thinker Rashid Ghannouchi, who recently announced his departure from Islamism and embrace of Muslim democracy (Ghannouchi 2016), a maqasid-oriented approach to upholding the sharia prioritizes such concepts as human dignity (karamah insaniyah), freedom (al-hurriyah), justice (al-‘adalah), good governance, democracy, and plural coexistence with non-Muslims within a citizenship (muwatanah) framework that recognizes equality (al-musawah). These ideas behind civil nationhood are regarded by second-generation Islamists to be as important as were the notions of hudud and the juridical Islamic state among first-generation Islamists (Rane 2011). PAS seems to be stuck with first-generation Islamism.

In the civil society realm, Muslim endorsement of the secular state has been forthcoming from the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF), launched in December 2009 and led by the surgeon Ahmad Farouk Musa (Ahmad Fauzi and Che Hamdan 2016, 10). Together with the Muslim women’s rights group Sisters in Islam, IRF has become the standard-bearer of liberal Islam in contemporary Malaysia, much to the consternation of mainstream Islamists, both pro-state and anti-state, who see them as acting in complicity with enemies of Islam (Melati 2017). IRF cooperates closely with the Group of 25 (G25), a loose grouping of former high-ranking civil servants who were catapulted into the limelight by their public letter expressing concern over the encroachment of the sharia into areas where the Federal Constitution is supposed to hold supreme, such as inviolable fundamental liberties (Star Online 2014). Both IRF and G25 have been accused by the Department of the Advancement of Islam of Malaysia (JAKIM, Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia) of importing undesirable preachers whose liberal ideas are a threat to Malaysian Islam as rooted in orthodox Sunni traditionalism (Aina 2017). Both have had their recent publications banned (Amar Shah 2017; FMT Reporters 2017), which is not surprising in view of their open promotion of a neo-rationalist theology that questions the credibility of the whole Malay-Muslim religious worldview (Liber TV 2017). But both also cultivate a cordial understanding with Dr. Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, whom they regard as a progressive rather than conservative Salafi scholar (Oorjitham 2017). This has brought them at odds with traditionalist scholars, most of whom control Malaysia’s state-level Islamic bureaucracies except in Perlis, the Federal Territory, and Terengganu. Many of these traditionalists have organic linkages with resurgent conservative groups determined to defend a culturally conditioned Malay-Islamic kerajaan led by the various Sultans as heads of the Islamic religion. Among these new organizations are the Malaysian Association of Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jamaah (ASWAJA, Pertubuhan Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah Malaysia), led by Home Ministry official Dr. Zamihan Zin Al-Ghari; and the Association of Authoritative Sufi Orders of Malaysia (PERTAMA, Pertubuhan Tarekat Muktabar Malaysia), led by ex-civil servant As’ari Haji Ibrahim (Pertubuhan Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah Malaysia n.d.; Pertubuhan Tarekat Muktabar Malaysia n.d.). Both ASWAJA and PERTAMA, with overlapping memberships,14) have come out strongly against what they see as an ongoing Salafi-cum-liberal onslaught against the fundamentals of Malaysian Islam (Anne 2016; Muhammad Saufi 2017).

Notwithstanding the existence of divergent and sometimes conflicting Islamist tendencies, it is fair to say that in the era of Najib as prime minister, conservative Wahhabi-Salafism has prevailed over other Islamist trends as the main plank of Malaysia’s Islamic policies (Ahmad Fauzi and Che Hamdan 2015, 312–321). Malaysia’s mainstreaming of Wahhabi-Salafism has effectively overtaken Malaysia’s wasatiyyah (moderation) agenda, even as Najib continues to tout Malaysia’s credentials as a moderate Muslim nation-state that reputedly renounces all forms and manifestations of extremism, as showcased, for example, in its patronage of the Kuala Lumpur-based Global Movement of Moderates (El-Muhammady 2015). Despite the existence of a national fatwa pronouncing Wahhabism as unsuitable for Malaysian society (Malay Mail Online 2015), the deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki (2016), defended Wahhabism in parliament as being part of mainstream Sunni Islam. Meanwhile, Najib himself launched a blistering attack on the ideologies of “human rights-ism,” “liberalism,” “secularism,” “humanism,” and “pluralism” as growing threats to Islam (Ahmad Fauzi 2016a, 31).

Najib’s administration fails to recognize that moderation and pluralism go hand in hand, and that tolerance of both interreligious and intra-religious differences—something alien to pretenders of Salafism, and its violence-legitimating Wahhabi version in particular (El Fadl 2005, 45–47, 51–53, 139–140, 199)—contributed to the flourishing of Islamic civilizations of the past. On the ground, the debilitating impact of Wahhabi-Salafi-driven Islamism shows in the steady decline of interfaith initiatives (Osman 2009, 69; Rahimin Affandi et al. 2011, 95–97). The lukewarm response of Malay Muslims toward calls for more social engagement with non-Muslims stems from a state-orchestrated discouragement of non-Muslims from participating in public discussion of Islam, further reinforcing the exclusionary character of the Islamist narrative (Hunt 2009, 588).

As Islamism spills over into Salafi-jihadism—a doctrine that traces its origins to Sayyid Qutb’s revolutionary thoughts that many Malay Muslims grew up admiring—since mid-2014 Malaysians have been jolted by the shocking news that once-“gentle” Malay Muslims are today joining terrorist groups, carrying out suicide attacks, and killing alleged apostates in the most gruesome manner (Tan 2014; El-Muhammady 2016; Utusan Malaysia 2016). These jihadists pose a threat via the “blowback effect” if they return to Malaysia and continue their violent ways closer to home. According to Special Branch Counter-Terrorism Division Chief Ayob Khan, at the turn of 2017, 264 militants had been jailed for crimes connected to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or the Daesh terrorist group, with a further 60 remaining in Iraq and Syria. The numbers of ISIS recruits from Malaysia, however, show an upward trend, with no ready solution in sight as religious authorities, private and public institutions of higher learning, NGOs, and government departments continue to patronize preachers with clear Wahhabi-Salafi sympathies (Farik 2017; Muzliza 2017).


Many developing Muslim countries look up to Malaysia as a model of a modern nation-state that has successfully synthesized Islam and modernity. In contrast with many post-World War II Arab governments that marginalized religion in policy making (Sharabi 1965), Malaysia accommodated it. Indeed, barring hiccups such as some racialist aspects of its nation building (Muhammad Haniff 2007), Malaysia has generally been presented as an exemplary success story of a rapidly developing Muslim-majority nation-state (Siddiqi 1995, 20–21, 24). Such claims are backed up by statistical figures. In the Islamicity indices developed by Hossein Askari and Scheherazade Rehman of George Washington University, for instance, Malaysia emerges top among Muslim-majority countries in internalizing Quranic values in spheres of real lives such as economic achievement, social progress, human rights, governance, and justice (Rehman and Askari 2010; McElroy 2014). The historian Cheah Boon Kheng (2003, 406) concedes that, despite its rather ethnically skewed approach toward preferential policies, “Malaysia is a striking example of a fairly successful dominant-ethnic model of nation-building.”

With increasing numbers of Malay Muslims gravitating toward exclusivist interpretations of Islam, leading to rising intolerance amidst the widespread belief that an Islamic state is a necessary condition for the comprehensive realization of the ideals of Islam, the rosy picture above is in serious danger of being overwhelmed by Islamist-driven imperatives, which should be differentiated from what has been traditionally understood as Islamic in the orthodox manner. Being constantly embattled by its slender majority, Najib’s government appears to have struck a bargain with Wahhabi-Salafi elements; this not only confers it Islamist legitimacy but also reifies Islam in a more rigid direction. For some time, the government has placed special importance on Malaysia’s bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia, from whom Malaysia gets generous pilgrimage quotas and an array of other pecuniary benefits. This makes it unlikely that Wahhabi-Salafism will be banned despite increasing evidence of its association with terrorism (Husain 2014; Asmady 2015, 187, 192–195, 207–208). Of all people, Prime Minister Najib himself has made global headlines by willingly becoming a recipient of Saudi Arabia’s largesse (Coughlin 2016). Ironically, Malaysia even seeks to emulate Saudi Arabia’s deradicalization program of ISIS-related detainees (Bernama 2016), when it is clear that the Saudi state and ISIS share the same Wahhabi-Salafi ideology (Crooke 2015).

At the present juncture, Malaysia’s much-cherished multiculturalism and pluralism are gradually becoming inevitable victims of the country’s transformation from a rainbow nation to a Wahhabi-Salafi-driven polity that bases a significant degree of its policy making on the political ideology of Islamism rather than on Islam as a religious faith in all its manifestations. In the emerging Islamist body politic, the voices of non-Muslims and unorthodox Muslims are being systematically marginalized. The current phase of Islamization ostensibly still professes fealty to Islam, when it is really Islamism or Wahhabi-Salafi-driven political Islam that is being upheld, to which a little addition of jihadism could dangerously pave the way toward violent extremism. The whole scenario is not helped by the essentialization of contemporary Islamic discourse in a strongly politico-legal direction, thus consigning philosophical and spiritual aspects of Islam to the periphery of the Malay-Muslim religious worldview. Islam is defined, interrogated, and essentialized through thoroughly institutional lenses, invariably taking on a politico-legal color. Religion is internalized more as a series of physical injunctions and prohibitions, with the emphasis placed mostly on Islam’s legalistic rather than civilizational aspects. This is proven by ISTAC’s forcible closure in 2015, the increasingly peripheral positions occupied by Sufism and philosophy as tertiary-level academic disciplines in Malaysia (Che Zarrina 2007; Wan Suhaimi 2007), and the banning of neo-traditionalist groups such as Darul Arqam that seek to uphold a progressive and pluralist albeit Sufi-centric vision of an Islamic society (Ahmad Fauzi 2005; 2013).

Accepted: June 29, 2018


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1) On September 16, 1963, the nation-state of Malaysia was founded out of the merger between Malaya, known today as Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak—two states on Borneo island—and Singapore, forming a single federation. In August 1965, Singapore left the federation to establish an independent country of its own.

2) While it has been axiomatic to speak of Malaysia’s population in terms of the “Malay-Chinese-Indian” ethnic divisions, groups like the Eurasians and various Orang Asli (lit.: Original People) tribes have long been part of the country’s diverse racial makeup, predating independence in 1957. Upon the formation of Malaysia in September 1963, the Bumiputera (lit.: sons of the soil) category was created, subsuming the Malays, all of whom are legally Muslims; the Orang Asli, indigenous groups of Sabah and Sarawak—both Muslim and non-Muslim; and other non-Malay ethnic groups considered native to Malaysia, such as the Siamese of northern Peninsular Malaysia and the Portuguese of Malacca.

3) In the case of states without hereditary Sultans—Malacca, Penang, Sabah, Sarawak, and the Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur and Labuan—the role of the head of the Islamic religion was assumed by the Yang diPertuan Agong, the constitutionally appointed monarch whose position is rotated every five years among the nine rulers.

4) Hudud punishments are criminal penalties instituted by the Quran and Sunna (exemplary traditions of Prophet Muhammad) after lawful conviction in a court of law, such as amputation of the hand for thieves, flogging of 80 lashes for consuming intoxicating liquor, flogging for libel, stoning to death for adultery, and flogging of 100 lashes for fornication.

5) A mufti is a religious scholar authorized by a government to issue fatwa—an authoritative legal opinion that provides guidance for Muslims. In Malaysia, however, a fatwa is more than just an opinion; it is binding upon Muslims of a particular state after being passed and gazetted by the state legislative assembly. Noncompliance with a fatwa is criminalized, leading to the possibility of being charged and convicted in a sharia court.

6) A kadi or qadi is a religious scholar qualified to be a judge or jurist or magistrate and based in sharia courts or religious offices that perform extrajudicial functions.

7) By 2001 Anwar Ibrahim was languishing in jail after having been found guilty of corruption and sodomy in 1999. In 2003 KEADILAN merged with the socialist-oriented People’s Party of Malaysia (PRM, Parti Rakyat Malaysia) to form the People’s Justice Party (PKR, Parti Keadilan Rakyat) led by Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, as president.

8) Since 1974 Malaysia’s federal government has been helmed by BN, a multiethnic coalition of 13 component parties whose precursor, the Alliance (Perikatan)—made up of UMNO, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC)—ruled the country from 1957 until the suspension of parliamentary democracy following racial riots in May 1969. Two former opposition parties, GERAKAN and PAS, which had defeated Perikatan in the states of Penang and Kelantan respectively in the 1969 general elections, were part of the original BN setup, but while GERAKAN remains in BN until today, PAS was expelled in 1977. In the wake of Anwar Ibrahim’s expulsion from UMNO and the government in 1998, BN was challenged in the 1999 general election by the Alternative Front (BA, Barisan Alternatif), comprising KEADILAN, DAP, PAS, and PRM. BA, however, lasted only until 2001. In 2008, immediately following the opposition parties’ success in denying BN a two-thirds parliamentary majority and wresting the state governments of four other states besides Kelantan, which had been under PAS’s control since 1990, the People’s Pact (PR, Pakatan Rakyat) was formed to unite DAP, PKR, and PAS. PR broke up in 2015 due to an internal rupture in PAS, whose progressive faction then founded the National Trust Party (AMANAH, Parti Amanah Negara), which continues to cooperate with DAP and PKR in a newly constituted coalition called the Pact of Hope (PH, Pakatan Harapan). Of the three opposition-ruled states in Malaysia today, Kelantan has been a solitary PAS administration since 2015, while Penang and Selangor are officially PH- and previously PR-led governments marshalled by DAP and PKR respectively.

9) “Islamist” is used here to refer to the political ideology of Islamism rather than to Islam per se as a religious faith. On Islamism, see the next paragraph.

10) Guided by 10 universal precepts, Islam Hadhari calls for values and principles of a state to be compatible with Islam, without necessarily forging a state that incorporates the Islamic legal framework, understood as being constantly prone to change and not fixed. In practice, Islam Hadhari necessitates a reappraisal of past judgments based on independent reasoning (ijtihads) so as to make them relevant to contemporary developments; see Ahmad Fauzi (2009, 178–179) and Ahmad Fauzi and Muhamad Takiyuddin (2014, 162–163).

11) Literally meaning “family” in Arabic, usra refers to MB-inherited cell-like groups to discuss ways and means of practicing Islam as a way of life, often conducted outside of official working hours. For details, see Nabisah et al. (2015).

12) Referring to the puritanical stream pioneered by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–92) of Nejd in the Arabian Peninsula.

13) According to the medieval scholar Al-Ghazali (1058–1111), whose thought has been influential on Malaysian Islam, maqasid syariah, at its barest minimum, entails the protection of one’s faith (Arabic: din), life (Arabic: nafs), intellect (Arabic: aql), family (Arabic: nasl), and wealth (Arabic: mal); see Hasan (2015, 60–62).

14) For example, Zamihan Mat Zin also serves as a member of PERTAMA’s central executive committee; see Persatuan Tarekat Muktabar Malaysia (n.d.).


Vol. 7, No. 3, Jeff TAN


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 3

Rents, Accumulation, and Conflict in Malaysia

Jeff Tan*

*Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations, Aga Khan University, The Aga Khan Centre, 10 Handyside Street, London, N1C, United Kingdom
e-mail: jeff.tan[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.7.3_309

This paper examines conflict in Malaysia through an analysis of rents and the relationship between the economic imperative for growth and political imperative for stability. It links episodes of conflict and political instability to the social forces that drive the allocation of rents and the impact of these rents on the pattern of accumulation. It examines how the emergence and expansion of the Malay intermediate classes increased contestation and conflict over the allocation of rents that compromised the state’s ability to balance the political imperative for stability with the economic imperative for growth. It traces Malaysia’s long-term economic slowdown associated with premature deindustrialization to the state prioritizing rents for accommodation (redistribution) over rents for learning and accumulation.

Keywords: rents, accumulation, conflict, growth, stability, deindustrialization, Malaysia

I Introduction

Malaysia’s political economy is usually analyzed in terms of policy swings between state intervention and economic liberalization. The former is seen as a response to political pressures for redistribution and the latter as a response to the growth imperative. The withdrawal of the state through economic liberalization is thus considered desirable by reducing rent seeking and corruption associated with state intervention. The implicit assumption here is that state intervention is intrinsically inefficient (because politicians pursue their own interests) and is an invitation to rent-seeking behavior. This draws from public choice theory (see, e.g., Krueger 1974; 1990; Buchanan 1980; Boycko et al. 1996) and is consistent with the elite-centered approach where state intervention is analyzed in terms of political capture of the state by individual politicians who then redistribute public resources to secure political support (see, e.g., Jesudason 1989; Bowie 1991; Gomez 2002).

Several problems can be identified with the elite-centered explanation. First, the public choice critique of state intervention and rents fails to distinguish between different types of rents and ignores the role of some types of rents in the development process historically. Second, the discussion of rent seeking largely excludes discussion of rent seekers, that is, the social forces that pursue rents and influence the allocation of rents. Instead, elite-centered explanations focus on the role of individual political leaders, with analysis of the state and state intervention similarly removed from social forces that the state is invariably connected to. Third, conflict tends to be examined in terms of interethnic rivalries that are seen as the cause of political instability rather than the outcome of pressure from social forces seeking rents.

This paper provides an alternative approach to the issue of conflict in Malaysia through an analysis of rents in order to provide a broad overview of the relationship between the economic imperative for growth and political imperative for stability since independence. It develops a framework to link episodes of conflict and political instability to the allocation of rents and pattern of accumulation in Malaysia. It does this by distinguishing between the different types of rents needed in the development process, the social forces that drive the allocation of these rents, and the impact of the allocation of rents on growth and stability (section II). The paper then applies this framework to Malaysia (section III) and argues that the emergence and expansion of social forces, specifically the Malay intermediate classes, increased contestation and conflict over the allocation of rents. This compromised the state’s ability to balance the political imperative for stability with the economic imperative for growth because of the nature of the state’s relationship with these classes. Malaysia’s long-term economic slowdown can be traced to the state prioritizing rents for accommodation (and hence stability) over rents for learning and accumulation. This corresponds with premature deindustrialization and the increasing frequency and intensity of conflict.

II Rents, Accumulation, and Conflict

The development process entails the transfer of resources from less to more productive sectors and classes. Historically this redistribution has been associated with the process of industrialization and occurred through the allocation of rents for learning (to promote manufacturing) and accumulation (to support the emergence of an industrial capitalist class). As any form of economic redistribution is invariably contested, rents associated with economic growth will usually need to be supplemented with rents for accommodation to secure political stability, usually by buying off dissent or purchasing support during a period of socioeconomic transformation. The allocation of rents in the development process will thus be informed by the imperatives for growth and stability.

Conflict can be understood as an outcome of the contestation over rents (or rent seeking) that affects the allocation of rents for growth and stability. As contestation involves social forces, the analysis of rents needs to be supplemented with an analysis of the social forces that drive (or oppose) the allocation of rents. At the same time, the analysis of accumulation helps explain growth outcomes based on the types of rents prioritized. The remainder of this section elaborates on the relationship between rents, growth, and stability (section II-1); the role of social forces in shaping how rents are allocated (section II-2); and how contestation and conflict are driven by rent seeking and triggered or exacerbated by economic slowdown (section II-3).

II-1 Rents and Patterns of Accumulation
The development process is typically characterized by two competing requirements—the economic imperative for growth and the political imperative for stability. Political stability is both a condition for accumulation and hence economic growth, and also contingent on economic growth because economic prosperity provides the basis for, and the resources to, secure political legitimacy and hence stability. The purchase of political support for stability thus depends on sustainable patterns of accumulation and growth. Declining growth rates can lead to instability by reducing the state’s ability to distribute rents and hence dispense patronage necessary for stability. This is also why instability and conflict often coincide with economic slowdown or crises.

Accumulation can broadly refer to the process of wealth creation through productive or unproductive investments in productive or unproductive sectors. Growth associated with productive accumulation in productive sectors tends to be more sustainable than growth from unproductive accumulation in unproductive sectors. The pattern of accumulation describes the prevailing or dominant types of productive or unproductive investment and sectors that characterize an economy, and can be illustrated through the sectoral shares of GDP. Both growth and stability involve the allocation of different types of rents, and the relationship between growth and stability is mediated through these rents. Rents are typically defined in (neoclassical) economics as “excess incomes” higher than the minimum next-best opportunity (Milgrom and Roberts 1992, 269) that should not exist in efficient markets. However, rents have been a central feature of late industrialization as illustrated by the experiences of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan (see Amsden 1989; Wade 1990; Chang 1994) because new technology needs to be produced and learned and new property rights created (Khan 2000b).

Late industrialization entails the allocation of rents to promote learning for technological adaptation by providing incentives for emerging industries (ibid.; Bhide 2005; Gries and Naude 2008), particularly as new technology is often only acquired through the process of learning-by-doing (Arrow 1962). These rents include “conditional subsidies” (Amsden 1989) and “performance-indexed rewards” (World Bank 1993) that are “conditional on the achievement of learning over a specified time-frame” (Khan 2000b, 22). Rents for learning are thus potentially productive as they can contribute to technological acquisition and industrial upgrading, even if this entails initial costs and deadweight losses (Khan 2000a).

At the same time, rents for accumulation are needed to create new property rights because developing countries typically lack a domestic capitalist class able to participate in the industrialization process. These rents function to promote accumulation (or wealth creation) and include subsidies (e.g., soft loans) and “transfers . . . which convert public property into private property” (e.g., privatization and land grabs) (Khan 2000b, 36, 38) akin to the process of “primitive accumulation” of the Enclosures Act in England (Marx 1867). As with rents for learning, rents for accumulation are also potentially productive provided they lead to investment in productive sectors. In the context of late industrialization, productive sectors would necessarily center on manufacturing.

The allocation of rents for learning and accumulation will usually need to be supplemented with rents for accommodation to maintain political stability (Khan 1998a). This is because the redistributive features of rents, in particular the creation of new property rights, will invariably be contested, particularly by groups or classes that have been excluded, as was the case in Pakistan in the 1950s and 1960s (Khan 1999). Rents for accommodation can be viewed as side payments to particular groups or classes that potentially threaten political stability and/or whose support the state depends on for legitimacy (Khan 1998a; 1998b; North et al. 2007). These can take the form of the “limited access order” (LAO) that restricts access to valuable resources or activities (North et al. 2007) or politically motivated redistributive policies that form the basis for a stable “elite bargain” (Di John and Putzel 2009; Varkkey 2014, 189) or that serve to consolidate political control and stability (Dunning 2005). LAOs are often also related to primitive accumulation centered on natural resource extraction that may be productive and form the basis for sustainable growth, for example where timber concessions help create a wood furniture industry. In this case, rents for accommodation also function to promote accumulation. Politically motivated redistribution can range from handouts in the form of small or medium state contracts and public employment, to large-scale cash transfers (Varkkey 2014) and are generally unproductive.

The allocation of both sets of rents thus affects accumulation in different ways. Rents for learning and accumulation associated with industrialization are potentially growth enhancing (depending on how these are allocated and managed) and are thus more likely to lead to sustainable patterns of accumulation. Rents for accommodation may result in accumulation but are generally unproductive and growth reducing because they are allocated primarily for political expediency and can result in unsustainable patterns of accumulation, even if productive accumulation may sometimes occur as an unintended outcome. They are nonetheless often necessary as political stability is a precondition for accumulation and hence growth.

The sustainability of patterns of accumulation refers to the ability of different types of investments and sectors to sustain long-term growth, and is a reflection of the net effect of productive and unproductive rents. Sustainable patterns of accumulation suggest a positive net effect of rents, where the benefits of rents to promote growth outweigh the costs of rents to maintain stability. Unsustainable patterns of accumulation suggest a negative net effect of rents, where the benefits of rents to promote growth are outweighed by the costs of rents to maintain stability. As it would be difficult to quantify the actual costs and benefits of different rents (see Khan 2000b), determining the net effect can be based on evidence in the literature of the success of rents for learning and accumulation, and changes in the allocation of rents for accommodation.

II-2 Social Forces and Rent Seeking
Social forces are central in the discussion of rents because they are both an outcome and driver of rent allocations. Insofar as rents are connected to social transformations associated with the capitalist transition, these will lead to the emergence of new social classes that include both (emerging) capitalist and non-capitalist classes. The former are often the outcome of rents aimed at promoting late industrialization, and the latter typically comprise economically inactive or uncompetitive classes seeking political accommodation. These social classes constitute social forces where they exert political pressure over subsequent allocations of rents.

Rents are typically allocated through informal patron-client networks as part of “traditional” forms of relationships between rulers and the ruled (ibid.). Patron-client exchanges are “repeated exchanges between patrons and clients” that survive in early capitalist societies because

personalised and specific payoffs from patrons to clients provide a very efficient mechanism of purchasing political support by allowing the accommodation and incorporation of key groups of clients . . . where the state is not strong enough to enforce order by force. (Khan 1998b, 115)

Patron-client networks “organise payoffs to the most vociferous opponents of the system” and are thus “an effective if costly way of maintaining political stability where there is a lack of support for emerging capitalism and capitalists” (ibid.).

This suggests that the impact of social forces on the allocation of rents will depend on: (a) the composition and preferences of new social classes; (b) their connection to the state; and (c) the balance of power between these social forces and the state. Economically active classes include emerging capitalists who are more likely to favor productive rents and sectors. Economically inactive classes include traditional (feudal) pre-capitalist classes and emerging intermediate classes that comprise the petty bourgeoisie, salaried and professional employees, and low-level public officials (Hodges 1961; Khan 2005; 2010). The latter classes are more likely to favor unproductive rents and sectors. These could include rents for accommodation such as (public) employment opportunities and rents for accommodation through accumulation in protected and/or non-tradable sectors.

The influence of these classes will depend on their connection with the state and the balance of power between them and the state. The economic imperative means that the state will tend to prioritize growth when it is connected to economically active classes as the interests of the state and these classes are likely to coincide, and as growth also provides revenue to secure political legitimacy. This is especially so where the balance of power is in favor of the state, enabling it to enforce performance conditionalities associated with learning rents that are necessary for technology upgrading and efficiency gains in dynamic sectors related to manufacturing (Khan 2004).

Where the balance of power is not in favor of the state, even potentially productive rents for learning and accumulation may lead to inefficient outcomes. This is because intense competition between developing countries to move up manufacturing global value chains within global production networks (GPNs), and the high risks with only modest returns in the short term, act as major disincentives for manufacturing (Razmi and Blecker 2008; Whittaker et al. 2010). At the same time financialization creates perverse incentives for the pursuit of unsustainable accumulation in finance, insurance, real estate, and other non-tradable, protected, and unproductive sectors (see Brenner 2002; Duménil and Lévy 2004; Stockhammer 2004; 2005; 2008; Krippner 2005). In the absence of sufficient disciplinary capacity, the state will be unable to sanction non-performance by removing rents from underperforming firms or ensure that rents for accumulation lead to investments in productive sectors (Khan 2000b).

The state is more likely to prioritize the political imperative for stability where it is connected to economically inactive classes and where the balance of power is unfavorable. As the domestic capitalist class (where this exists) in developing countries tends to be small and politically weak, the state is more often connected with traditional (feudal) pre-capitalist classes and emerging intermediate classes. Some segments of the intermediate classes may be economically active (e.g., small traders and shopkeepers), but in general these classes tend to be those left behind because they are unable to compete in the modern economy.

The intermediate classes are, however, often “collectively the most powerful political group in most developing countries” (Khan 2005, 718) and “provided a significant proportion of the political entrepreneurs of recent history” (Khan 2010, 62), thus constituting a major social force seeking rents in many developing countries (Fine 1997; Khan 2000a; North et al. 2007). The state’s connection to the intermediate classes is thus usually one based on political support for ruling political parties or the threat of political instability associated with the withdrawal of this support. This “tension between the redistributive demands coming from factional politics and the imperative of ensuring economic growth largely through the capitalist sector can result in sharp shifts in state policy” ranging from politically motivated redistribution to specific patron-client factions and “dramatically pro-capitalist policies” (Khan 2010, 62).

II-3 Rent Seeking, Contestation, and Conflict

Conflict arises from contestation by social forces over the allocation of resources in general and rents more specifically. The frequency and intensity of conflict depend on the degree of contestation. The degree of contestation is in turn shaped by the composition of social forces and changes in the balance of power. The propensity toward conflict also corresponds with economic slowdown or crises and is related to the state’s inability to allocate further rents for accommodation because unsustainable patterns of accumulation cannot deliver sufficient growth for redistribution. Patterns of accumulation that are unsustainable, for example where rents are allocated in protected or non-tradable sectors, are thus more prone to conflict, especially during economic crises.

The relationship between rent seeking and conflict can be illustrated in terms of cycles of accumulation and conflict (Fig. 1) . The allocation of rents shapes the pattern of accumulation (A) that brings about social transformations and the emergence of new social forces (B). These new social forces contest the subsequent allocation of rents, which in turn fuels conflict and culminates in an episode of conflict (C). The outcome of this conflict depends on the state’s connections with society, the nature of this relationship, and the balance of power between the state and segments of society it is connected to. The types of rents related to accumulation and accommodation then create a new pattern of accumulation (A) that brings about further social transformations and leads to new emerging social forces (B) through the allocation of rents, setting off a new cycle of contestation and episode of conflict (C) and eventually another new cycle of accumulation and conflict (A/B/C).


Fig. 1 Cycles of Accumulation and Conflict

Notes: A/A′/A″ (pattern of accumulation); B/B′/B″ (social forces); C/C′/C″ (episode of conflict).


III Cycles of Accumulation and Conflict in Malaysia

The framework of cycles of accumulation and conflict can help explain the relationship between accumulation and conflict in Malaysia based on the analysis of rents and social forces. The allocation of rents illustrates the tension between growth and stability that has been a central feature of Malaysia’s political economy across four phases of development: Phase 1 (1957–69), Phase 2 (1970–85), Phase 3 (1986–99), Phase 4 (2000–16). Each phase of development broadly corresponds with a cycle of accumulation and conflict that is characterized by a specific pattern of accumulation and episode(s) of conflict. The discussion below is by no means comprehensive but instead tries to provide a historical overview of how social forces influence economic outcomes (patterns of accumulation) and the impact of this on political stability. Patterns of accumulation are assessed in terms of changing sectoral shares of GDP. Indicators of political instability and conflict draw loosely from the idea of “elite fractiousness” that is typically reflected in leadership contests, cabinet changes and dismissals, and party splits (see, e.g., Case 2014).

Section III-1 examines the three types of rents allocated in Malaysia across the four phases of development, and the impact of these rents on the pattern and sustainability of accumulation. Section III-2 looks at the two-way relationship between rent allocation and emerging social forces, where the Malay intermediate classes emerged as a result of early rents for accommodation, and where the subsequent push for an expansion of these rents led to the rapid growth of these classes and specific patterns of accumulation. Section III-3 examines how increasing contestation and conflict over rent allocation are driven by social forces and correspond with economic slowdown related to unsustainable patterns of domestic accumulation.

III-1 Rents and Patterns of Accumulation in Malaysia
Rents for Learning

Early rents to promote import-substitution industrialization (ISI) in Phase 1 (1957–69) sought to modernize and diversify the economy through tax exemptions (the 1958 Pioneer Industry Ordinance) and high tariffs after 1966, mainly in the packaging and assembly of imported components for the protected domestic market (Jomo and Edwards 1993; Lim 2011; Rasiah 2011). Rents were also allocated to promote Malay participation in manufacturing through the Rural Industrial Development Authority and by stipulating a 10 percent reservation of share capital for Malays in pioneer industries (Lim 1985, 42). The inherent limitations of ISI in a small domestic market and the failure of import-substitution industries to move beyond basic manufacturing and assembly activities (see Jomo and Edwards 1993) were mirrored in the pattern of accumulation by the end of Phase 1 that was dominated by agriculture (33.1 percent of GDP compared to 13.1 percent for manufacturing) and reflected in a modest average growth rate over this phase of 6.5 percent (Lim 2011). (Unless indicated, data in this section is taken from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators.)

Rents for ISI were supplemented with rents to promote export-oriented industrialization (EOI) in Phase 2 (1970–85) through the 1968 Investment Incentives Act and 1971 Free Trade Zones Act. These offered tax holidays, tax and tariff exemptions, investment credits, and infrastructural facilities to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) that “translated into substantial rents” for export-oriented (foreign) manufacturing firms (Rasiah 2011). This coincided with the increase globally of FDI, the emergence of GPNs, and Malaysia’s position within the region as a node of, and intersection for, the Japanese and US electronics industry production chains (Tanaka and Kenney 1996). This was reflected in changes in the pattern of accumulation, with the manufacturing share of GDP increasing from 13.1 percent to 19.7 percent by 1985, and in higher average growth rates over this phase at 6.9 percent.

Rents for a second round of ISI in domestic heavy industries in Phase 3 (1986–99) were a response to the limitations of FDI-led industrialization and

an emerging industrial dualism between the foreign domination of a high-technology, dynamic export sector and almost all internationally competitive non-resource based industrial capability, and a domestic manufacturing sector restricted to small and medium domestic firms mainly in assembly and subcontracting and disconnected from high-technology production and heavy industries. (Tan 2014, 158)

These rents were introduced at the end of Phase 2 to support the Heavy Industries Corporation of Malaysia (HICOM), which included Proton—the national car company—through high protection rates and a Vendor Development Programme to guarantee contracts for local companies as part of local content requirements.

Rents were also allocated for EOI in Phase 3 through the 1986 Promotion of Investment Act and 1986 Industrial Master Plan and included incentives for local sourcing, export credit refinancing, tax relief, tax deductions, and support for export promotions (Rasiah 2011). Rents for learning also targeted high-technology industries as part of wider economic policies to develop human capital and a knowledge economy (Lim 2011). EOI benefited from a second round of (mainly Japanese and Taiwanese) FDI that led to the rapid growth of manufactured exports (from 27.2 percent at the end of Phase 2 in 1985 to 80 percent by 1999) and increased manufacturing growth (from an average of 9.6 percent in Phase 2 to 11.3 percent in Phase 3, in spite of a 13.4 percent contraction in 1998 following the Asian financial crisis). This pattern of accumulation was reflected in the industry and manufacturing shares of GDP (46.5 percent and 30.9 percent respectively), and average growth rate of 7 percent (in spite of a 9.6 percent contraction in 1998).

Rents in Phase 4 (2000–16) focused on industrial upgrading in line with the Second Industrial Master Plan (1996–2005) and the Eighth and Ninth Malaysia Plans (2001–5 and 2006–10). However, the New Economic Model in 2010 marked a shift toward higher value-added activities in resource-based industries, particularly petrochemical, pharmaceutical, and food product industries, through R&D, FDI, and “dynamic industry clusters,” along with greater private partnerships with government-linked companies (GLCs) and a reduction of direct state involvement. This was reflected in the pattern of accumulation where export-led growth in manufacturing continued to rely on FDI while domestic accumulation was largely driven by GLCs and in non-manufacturing sectors, including resource-based industries. This corresponded with a fall in the industry share of GDP from 46.5 percent to 38.3 percent, and manufacturing from 30.9 percent to 22.2 percent, while services increased from 42.7 percent to 53 percent. The growth of the service sector was dominated by the state or by labor-intensive, low-technology services (wholesale and retail trade, hotels, restaurants) with limited scope for productivity increases, and a decline in modern services that are synonymous with support for the manufacturing sector (OECD 2016) that is consistent with premature deindustrialization.

Rents for Accumulation

While rents for learning would normally be complemented with rents for accumulation to promote the emergence of a domestic (industrial) capitalist class, this was not the immediate case in Malaysia because of the nature of social forces. Early rents for learning were not necessarily in manufacturing because of the economic dominance of foreign (mainly British) capital in plantations and mining, the political weakness of a domestic (ethnic Chinese) capitalist class, and preferences of emerging Malay capitalists and intermediate classes (discussed further in section III-2). Instead, rents for accumulation were closely tied with the political accommodation of economically inactive or uncompetitive classes and were already widespread in Phase 1.

Article 153 of the Federal Constitution amounted to “the first legal action to create a Malay bourgeoisie” (Lim 1985, 40) by preserving the “special position” of Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak through affirmative action. Malay businesses were offered protection through quotas for transport licenses (in 1958), timber licenses (1964), and government contracts (1964) (ibid.). Assistance was provided in the form of credit, the creation of Bank Bumiputera, and training for small businessmen and Malay professionals. The initial process of increasing Malay corporate ownership centered on the 1968 Capital Issues Committee, which set share prices, usually below market value, for Malay individuals and state-owned enterprises (SOEs), with 10 percent of shares of public limited corporations reserved for Malays (ibid.; Jesudason 1989). Large government expenditure on infrastructure as part of (rural) socioeconomic policies in the first three development plans provided enormous rents for Malay contractors (Lim 1985, 41).

In the absence of a Malay capitalist class, the state led the accumulation process in Phase 2 under the New Economic Policy (NEP). This centered on the acquisition of shares that provided quick control of well-managed, profitable companies, particularly in the “commanding heights of the economy” (e.g., British plantations and tin mines) (Jesudason 1989). Rents for accumulation were facilitated by regulations and laws to increase Malay equity and access to capital. The Industrial Coordination Act (1975) required companies to set aside 30 percent of shares issued for Malay equity.

Banking guidelines directed lending to priority sectors and categories of borrowers, with the designation of Malays as a “priority group” requiring a minimum of 20 percent of new loans allocated to Malay individuals or Malay-controlled companies (Searle 1999). This was supported by increasing state control and ownership of the banking sector, which influenced lending patterns and ensured compliance with lending targets for Malays (Chin and Jomo 2000). The Credit Guarantee Corporation (1972) provided credit to small and later medium enterprises in agriculture, commerce, and industry. The establishment of Bank Bumiputera in 1965 (as a direct response to Malay demands at the first Bumiputera Economic Congress) and takeovers of Malayan Banking in 1969 and United Malayan Banking Corporation in 1976 provided the state with ownership of the three largest commercial banks. This led to low interest rates, easy credit, and preferential lending for Malay businesses, often with risky forms of collateral and the acquisition of shares without the cash payment of capital but with the future earnings of allotted shares (Tan 1982). The easy access to finance was supported by even larger public funds from the state despite the poor track record of Malay businesses (Jesudason 1989).

Rents for accumulation in Phase 3 centered on privatization and the stock market. Privatization can be seen as a response to the distributional constraints and inefficiencies of the NEP by prioritizing growth over redistribution (Felker 1998). It centralized policy making and rent allocation more narrowly among a smaller group of businessmen through the management of key government-linked projects, and sought to institutionalize direct, high-level, state-business networks to foster private-public cooperation and consultation for industrial upgrading (Lall 1995; Felker 1998). It also represented an acceleration of the accumulation process through the direct sale of public assets at discounted prices, and tendering of (large) public infrastructure concessions (Tan 2008) that benefited a smaller group of (mainly) Malay capitalists close to the leadership of UMNO (United Malays National Organisation, the ruling Malay party), sometimes as proxies for the party itself (see Gomez 1991). The state promotion, and rapid growth, of the stock market allowed for the capture of rents through higher share prices and access to relatively cheap funds (Chin and Jomo 2001). Investment in equities was encouraged through changes in government lending guidelines in 1992 that authorized banks and non-monetary financial institutions to hold stocks in privatized SOEs, effectively increasing the share prices of these companies.

Rents for domestic accumulation in Phase 4 centered on a new round of state-led accumulation mainly in protected or non-tradable sectors through the investment activities of government-linked investment companies (GLICs) and GLCs. These public corporations represented a return to state-led accumulation following the failure of privatization and bailouts of large (Malay) conglomerates, including some of the largest beneficiaries of privatization (Tan 2008). GLCs received rents through their domination of key economic sectors (most notably banking) and also allocated rents for learning and accumulation through procurement policies and wider entrepreneurship support schemes.

Procurement policies included government (privatization) contracts allocated to large Malay companies for the purposes of accumulation, while small contracts allocated to individual Bumiputera contractors functioned as rents for accommodation. Both types of contracts constituted rents for accommodation in unproductive sectors associated with construction. These rents were also institutionalized within individual state departments and government ministries as quotas for Malay contractors. For example, in 2008 the Ministry of Works introduced a 10 percent “Distribution Policy” to small Class F Malay contractors for projects worth RM10 million and above that was extended in 2010 to larger Class E Bumiputera contractors (Malaysia 2009).

The Bumiputera Empowerment Programme required Malay participation in major infrastructure projects as part of ongoing state privatization contracts for Malay companies (see Tan 2015). RM10.6 billion, or 50 percent of total work packages under Line 1 of the Mass Rapid Transit project, for example, was allocated to Malay contractors (TERAJU 2017). Similarly, Skim Permulaan Usahawan Bumiputera (SUPERB, Bumiputera Entrepreneurs Start Up Scheme) allocated RM100 million to 200 new start-up companies between 2014 and 2017 (ibid.). These functioned as rents for both learning and accumulation.

Rents for Accommodation

Rents for accommodation were related to the political imperative for stability and crises of legitimacy, and were needed to secure political support at each phase of development. These rents also often intersected with rents for accumulation. Early state intervention in Phase 1 to improve the poor socioeconomic position of Malays was necessary to secure UMNO’s political support (Lim 1985; Jomo 1990) and a reflection of the state’s connection with the Malay rural populace that formed its core constituency. These rents included the creation of public enterprises with redistributional objectives to promote new economic activities, rural development and infrastructure projects discussed previously, and expanded education and public employment opportunities (Salleh and Meyanathan 1993).

Rents for accommodation were greatly expanded in Phase 2 under the NEP, especially through education and employment opportunities, as a direct response to UMNO’s electoral losses in 1969 and demands of the Malay intermediate classes, most notably through the youth wing of UMNO. This led to significant increases in government expenditure on education and a university quota system that greatly increased Malay enrollment at university from 1,038 (28.8 percent of total enrollment) in 1967–68 to 17,692 (70.6 percent) by 1980 (Malaysia 1971; 1976; 1981). Greater access to education through a quota system (first introduced by the British for its Malay Administrative Service) also facilitated Malay employment in the public sector, which expanded rapidly as a result. The bureaucracy grew fourfold to 521,818 employees by 1983, public sector expenditure increased over tenfold to RM35.4 billion in 1982, and the number of SOEs increased from 109 to 656 by 1980 (Khoo 1995).

These rents for accommodation were maintained into Phases 3 and 4 and were supplemented with the increased allocation of various privatization contracts for segments of the Malay intermediate classes that had expanded significantly as a result of rents for accommodation and accumulation in Phase 2. Ongoing and increasing allocations of rents for accommodation were related to increasing pressure from low-level UMNO members who constituted part of the Malay intermediate classes, including over 28,000 small (Class F and G1) Bumiputera contractors. Large-scale cash transfers to secure votes were introduced in Phase 4 through Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia (BR1M, 1Malaysia People’s Assistance) as a response to a loss of political legitimacy after the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition lost the popular vote in 2008 and 2013. BR1M disbursed RM5.4 billion to 7.3 million recipients between 2012 and 2016 (Anand 2016). This paralleled earlier rural (infrastructure) development expenditure.

The Failure of Rents for Learning and Accommodation

The literature on Malaysia suggests that rents for learning and domestic accumulation did not promote industrial upgrading and successful accumulation in manufacturing. The failure of learning rents was evident in each phase of development. Phase 1 was characterized by the inability of import-substitution industries to move beyond basic manufacturing and assembly activities. In Phase 2 domestic manufacturing remained restricted to “small and medium domestic firms mainly in assembly and subcontracting [that was] disconnected from high-technology production and heavy industries” (Tan 2014, 159) with low local content and limited linkages and technology transfer between multinational corporations (MNCs) and domestic firms outside the FTZs (Warr 1989; Jomo and Edwards 1993; Ali 1994; Ariff 1994). Phase 3 suffered from “ongoing structural weaknesses related to low aggregate technology levels, minimal technology spillovers and weak supply chains, with a heavy dependence on imported components” (Tan 2014, 161). The failure of learning and industrial upgrading was reflected in the inability and/or unwillingness of domestic companies to move into higher-technology sectors in the face of increasing competition, and ultimately in the shift away from manufacturing that characterized premature deindustrialization in Phase 4.

Similarly, rents for accumulation were unsuccessful in promoting accumulation, let alone accumulation in manufacturing across all four phases, with the historic failure of numerous high-profile Malay entrepreneurs (Lim 1985; Lim 2000). Early attempts to transfer wealth to Malays in Phase 1, through Amanah Saham Nasional (ASN, National Unit Trust Scheme), for example, reached only a small number of Malays, with many subsequently divesting rather than accumulating. Phase 2 was characterized by Ali-Baba relationships (where politically connected but economically inactive Malays known as “Ali” partnered with economically active ethnic Chinese capitalists referred to as “Baba”) or the divestment of government contracts or concessions for a quick profit. As a result, the NEP did not produce a class of dynamic Malay entrepreneurs (Gale 1981; Jesudason 1989; Salih 1989; Bowie 1991; Khoo 1995; Crouch 1996; Gomez and Jomo 1997).

The failure of rents for accumulation in Phase 3 was reflected in renationalizations and/or the state bailout of numerous prominent Malay capitalists and large Malay conglomerates associated with privatization, including some of the largest privatization projects (Tan 2008). This failure was epitomized by the inability and unwillingness of Proton’s private owner DRB to continue financing substantial R&D costs in the face of global competition and mounting debts, and its subsequent move into largely protected, non-tradable sectors following the renationalization of its subsidiary Proton (ibid.; Tan 2014). The failure of HICOM was largely connected to the failure of Proton and highlights the underlying tension between the imperatives for growth (accumulation) and redistribution (accommodation). Proton’s competitiveness depended not only on technological acquisition to produce a Malaysian car that was competitive, but also on the efficiency of the Malay vendors from which Proton was obliged to source 80 percent of its components. Proton’s inability to acquire and develop its own technology, compounded by ongoing high costs associated with local content requirements, meant that it remained uncompetitive in terms of technology and pricing. This was emblematic of the wider failure of industrial upgrading and the state’s inability to ensure learning rents translated into efficiency gains.

The Sustainability of Patterns of Accumulation

The overall failure of potentially productive rents associated with learning and accumulation, and increasing unproductive rents for accommodation suggests a negative net effect of rents. However, this is not reflected in economic growth rates, particularly in Phases 2 and 3. One explanation is that accumulation was largely driven by MNC-led manufacturing exports that occurred outside of the allocation of these rents, with early rents for accommodation, particularly in Phase 2, also financed by natural resource rents associated with high oil and commodity prices (Felker 2014).

Nonetheless, the reliance on MNC-led industrialization and growth had implications for domestic technological and manufacturing capabilities, particularly given the failure of rents for learning and accumulation. This was reflected in the dual industrial structure that emerged in Phase 2, and the shift away from manufacturing associated with premature deindustrialization in Phase 4. The corresponding economic slowdown in Phase 4 reduced available resources for rent allocation in the face of increasing demands for redistribution from social forces, particularly the Malay intermediate classes.

This was illustrated in the increasing demands for more government projects from low-level UMNO members who constituted part of the Malay intermediate classes, which compelled the government to allocate increasing amounts of rents for unproductive and unsustainable forms of accumulation. This included RM600 million in small contracts in 2006 allocated to all 191 UMNO divisions (Ong 2006), “more small-scale infrastructure projects in rural areas throughout the country . . . to cater to the needs of the 28,000-strong Bumiputera class F contractors” in 2014, and continued government assistance (UMNO 2014). Alongside these rents for accommodation were rents for unproductive accumulation in construction, with RM4.4 billion allocated between 2001 and 2005 to 27 Bumiputera contractors (Malaysia 2006, 228).

III-2 Social Forces and Rent Seeking in Malaysia
Social forces are central in the discussion of rents in Malaysia and can be seen as drivers and by-products of rent allocations across all four phases of development. The emergence of the Malay intermediate classes was the direct outcome of rents for accommodation in Phase 1 that were institutionalized as part of Malay “special rights.” These rents were aimed mainly at UMNO’s rural constituency by promoting socioeconomic development through infrastructure development, education, and public employment opportunities. The Malay intermediate classes included businessmen, white-collar professionals, civil servants, and middle-income groups (Jomo 1999). The growth of these classes in Phase 1 was reflected in the increase in “middle” social status Malay legislators from 10 percent (1955) to 42 percent (1964) (Neuman 1971). This increase was accounted for by Malay teachers (with 80 percent of the Federation of Malay Teachers Association being UMNO members), Malay businessmen, and junior civil servants (who registered a fourfold increase) (Clarke 1964, cited in Neuman 1971, 229).

This early evidence can be supported by examining official data on the employment shares of ethnic groups in middle class jobs. A breakdown by occupation and sector shows that Malays already dominated “professional and technical” occupations (47.2 percent) compared to Chinese (37.7 percent) and Indians (12.7 percent) in 1970, particularly in the primary and tertiary sectors, where Malays accounted for 55.9 percent and 48.7 percent of employment respectively (Fig. 2.1).


Fig. 2.1Employment Shares by Ethnic Group and Professional and Technical Category, 1970

Source: Malaysia (1976).


Malay representation was slightly less for total “clerical” positions (33.4 percent) compared with Chinese (51 percent) (Fig. 2.2), but this is far from being poorly represented as is often argued. Only in “administrative and managerial” positions was Malay participation significantly lower (22.4 percent) overall compared with Chinese (65.7 percent) (Fig. 2.3). Even then, the share of Malay administrators and managers in the tertiary sector (34.5 percent) was far from poor and not surprising given that this sector included public administration.


Fig. 2.2 Employment Shares by Ethnic Group and Clerical Category, 1970

Source: Malaysia (1976).



Fig. 2.3 Employment Shares by Ethnic Group and Administrative and Managerial Category, 1970

Source: Malaysia (1976).


Similarly, there was already a reasonably large number of registered Malay (Bumiputera) professionals, contrary to official NEP figures provided in the various Malaysia Plans. The discrepancy appears to be based on the number of Malay professionals actually registered with their respective professional/trade bodies (architects, accountants, dentists, doctors, engineers, lawyers, surveyors, and veterinary surgeons) rather than the total numbers of people engaged in these professions. As a result, official figures show that there were only 40 Malay accountants, 12 architects, 20 dentists, 79 doctors, 66 engineers, no lawyers or surveyors, and 8 veterinarians in 1970 (Malaysia 1976), which seems rather implausible.

The 1967–68 Department of Statistics household survey (Choudhry 1970, cited in Hirschman 1975) provides more insight into the size of this segment of the Malay intermediate classes, even if the classification is slightly different (Fig. 3). This shows that in 1967 Malay professionals were overrepresented as “teachers” (62 percent) and “scientists” (60 percent), well represented in “other medical” (36 percent), and underrepresented only as “architects and engineers” (18 percent) and “physicians and dentists” (16 percent). Again, the actual number of Malay registered professionals (in absolute terms and as a share of each occupational category) is not insignificant, particularly the 28,379 teachers who also constituted UMNO’s membership and support base.


Fig. 3 Professional and Technical Occupations by Ethnic Community (males), Peninsular Malaysia, 1967 (%)

Source: Choudhry (1970), cited in Hirschman (1975).


The presence of these intermediate classes before 1970 thus constituted the main social forces that were also connected to the state through UMNO and who needed to be accommodated. Heightened expectations and aspirations, along with the inability of the civil service to continue absorbing emerging university graduates, contributed to the impatience of the Malay middle class and demands for greater government intervention in favor of economic redistribution (Tan 1982; Jomo 1990; Gomez and Jomo 1997). Demands made at the first and second Bumiputera Economic Congress in 1965 and 1968 subsequently formed the basis of the NEP in Phase 2.

The NEP greatly increased rents for accommodation and contributed to the significant growth of the Malay intermediate classes. The new Malay middle class grew from 12.9 percent (1970) to 27 percent (1990) (Crouch 1993) and, by one estimate, more than tenfold between 1970 and 1998 (see Jomo 1999). This was mirrored in the expansion of the Malay intermediate classes in terms of “professional and technical,” “administrative and managerial,” and “clerical” occupation categories between 1970 and 1990, where the Malay share of employees increased from 47.2 percent to 60.5 percent, 22.4 percent to 28.9 percent, and 33.4 percent to 52.4 percent respectively (Figs. 4.1 4.3). The increased share of Malays in these occupational categories was mirrored by a corresponding decline in the share of other ethnic groups.


Fig. 4.1 Employment by Ethnic Group and Professional and Technical Category, Peninsular Malaysia, 1970 (%)

Sources: Malaysia (1976; 1996).



Fig. 4.2 Employment by Ethnic Group and Administrative and Managerial Category, Peninsular Malaysia, 1970 (%)

Sources: Malaysia (1976; 1996).



Fig. 4.3 Employment by Ethnic Group and Clerical Category, Peninsular Malaysia, 1970 (%)

Sources: Malaysia (1976; 1996).


The most revealing indicator of the growth of the Malay intermediate classes was in the number of registered Bumiputera professionals in the eight prized professions as prioritized by the government, with the most significant increase being in the number of engineers from 66 (1970) to 7,018 (1990) (Malaysia 1976; 1996). This coincided with an increase in the percentage of Bumiputera contractors registered with the Ministry of Works from under 30 percent (1970) to 63 percent (1980) (Lim 1985) and the longer-term increase in Class F (sole proprietor) Bumiputera contractors, supported by the increase in construction-related privatization contracts (see Tan 2015).

State-led accumulation through the control of publicly listed companies by state agencies also created a small but powerful “bureaucratic-capitalist elite” able to resist government attempts to impose budgetary discipline (Jomo 1986; Mehmet 1988; Bowie 1991; Bruton 1992; Jomo and Tan 1999). A powerful group of professional and trustee Malay executive directors increasingly active in business, former state managers, and Malay millionaires also began to appear in the late 1970s (Lim 1985; Jesudason 1989; Searle 1999). This emerging class of Malay businessmen has been variously described as Malay trustees, figurehead capitalists, executive-professional directors, executive-trustee directors, functional capitalists, bureaucrats-turned-businessmen, and state-managers-turned-owners (Khoo 2005, 28). Also included were politicians-turned-businessmen, UMNO proxy capitalists-turned-businessmen, and UMNO proxy capitalists-turned-corporate captains.

The emergence of these social forces was mirrored in changes in the occupational background and outlook of UMNO leaders and grassroots members, with schoolteachers and other local leaders replaced by businessmen and university-educated professionals produced by the NEP (Crouch 1993; Searle 1999). These classes were directly connected to the state through their membership of UMNO and were able to influence the allocation of rents by providing support for leadership contests, where growing elite fractiousness tilted the balance of power from patrons to clients. “Middle class elements” were able to completely take over UMNO by the early 1980s, and by the time privatization was introduced there was already a large Malay middle class, including younger, more professionally trained managers whose support was important and who had to be accommodated (Jomo 1999; Milne and Mauzy 1999).

The shift from the NEP in Phase 2 to privatization in Phase 3 was in part driven by these social forces, including economically active segments of the Malay intermediate classes and Malay big businessmen who stood to benefit most. Privatization, along with the state promotion of the stock market, accelerated the allocation of rents for accumulation and led to the expansion of Malay large capitalists who were also closely associated with key UMNO leaders (patrons), even acting as proxies for the party or individual leaders and thus deeply entrenched in competing patron-client networks (see, e.g., Gomez 1991; 2002). Smaller privatization contracts also led to the growth of segments of the Malay intermediate classes, most notably Malay contractors.

This accounted for the very high numbers and share of Malay contractors in Phase 4 that was a legacy of early construction-related rents associated with (rural) infrastructure projects in Phase 1. Employment data for “status by ethnic group” in 2013 provides some supporting evidence, with Malays making up only 38 percent of employers (compared to 48 percent for Chinese) but 53 percent of own account workers (20 percent Chinese) (Fig. 5). Own account workers are self-employed, and this corresponds with the rapid growth of Bumiputera professional engineers (Fig. 6) and very large numbers of Class F (sole proprietor) Malay contractors dependent on government (construction-related) contracts (Tan 2015) that constituted emerging social forces in Phase 4.


Fig. 5 Employed Persons by Status in Employment and Ethnic Group: Own Account Workers, 2013

Source: Malaysia (2013).



Fig. 6 Registered Bumiputera Professionals, 1970, 1995, 2008, Total

Sources: Malaysia (1971; 1996; 2011).


III-3 Rent Seeking, Contestation, and Conflict in Malaysia
Much of the political conflict and instability over Malaysia’s four phases of development can be traced to the growing contestation over the allocation of rents. This contestation can be observed in key episodes of conflict reflected in elite fractiousness that often diverts attention from the role of social forces driving changes in rent allocation. The emerging Malay intermediate classes in Phase 1 increased demands for greater government intervention in favor of economic redistribution (Tan 1982; Jomo 1990; Gomez and Jomo 1997). Pressure was exerted through UMNO and Malay business associations that largely represented medium-scale enterprises dependent upon bureaucratic patronage (e.g., the Associated Malay Chambers of Commerce, Selangor Malay Chambers of Commerce, and Kuala Lumpur Petty Traders Association) (Lim 1985; Ho 1988; Jesudason 1989; Felker 1999). Demands and threats made at the first and second Bumiputera Economic Congress (itself created in response to Malay business demands) in 1965 and 1968 culminated in “race riots” on May 13, 1969 that were orchestrated by segments of UMNO (Cham 1975; Kua 2007; Raja Petra 2009). The manifestation of violence as “race riots” tends to obscure the underlying conflict over rent allocation within UMNO between rival factions that resulted in the removal of Tunku Abdul Rahman as prime minister and suspension of parliament.

Increased conflict in Phase 2 was the direct result of contestation for rents by the greatly expanded Malay intermediate classes and economic imperatives related to the unsustainable expansion of the public sector. The changing composition of the Malay middle class reshaped the internal politics within UMNO local branches. Increasing economic patronage changed the nature of patron-client relationships, transforming local UMNO representatives into political patrons. Elected Members of Parliament who were previously political patrons (providing political support in return for economic benefits) greatly increased their control of the district development machinery, which enabled MPs to distribute development benefits and purchase continued support (Shamsul 1986).

Malay businessmen became an important force in the internal politics of UMNO, increasing factional struggles for nomination and outbreaks of violence at UMNO branch and division meetings after 1984 (ibid.; Khoo 1992; Crouch 1993; Aziz 1997). Increasing contestation in Phase 2 culminated in the UMNO leadership challenge by “Team B” (led by Finance Minister Razaleigh Hamzah and Deputy Prime Minister Musa Hitam) in 1987 (Khoo 1992; Crouch 1993). Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s narrow victory led to the removal of Team B cabinet ministers, the departure of Team B UMNO members, and the creation of a rival Malay political party, Semangat 47. Mahathir’s “Team A” received support from an NEP class of Malay businessmen who benefited from the subsequent introduction of privatization in Phase 3.

Increasing fragmentation of patron-client networks and factionalization within UMNO also made it harder for the political leadership to discipline Malay businessmen whose political support it depended on (see Tan 2008). The constraints on the state’s disciplinary capacity, along with preferences of the Malay intermediate classes for protected, non-tradable, and unproductive sectors of the economy, affected the types of rents and patterns of accumulation. As a result, rents for accumulation shifted away from manufacturing (where domestic firms generally remained uncompetitive) and into construction, real estate, and finance (Tan 2014).

Conflict at the end of Phase 3 related to the sacking of Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in 1997, which was the outcome of growing contestation and factionalization within UMNO over increasingly personalized patronage networks that centered on individual political leaders (Gomez 2002). The narrowing channels of rent allocation to a small circle of Malay capitalists closely associated with the prime minister, “together with the rapid and visible rise of a few selected Bumiputera businessmen under Mahathir’s leadership . . . led to increasing discontent” and “dissatisfaction over the allocations of government contracts, government funded projects, and the perceived beneficiaries of privatized projects and licenses” (Zainal and Bhattasali 2008, 28).

Phase 4 featured two key episodes of conflict. The first was the removal of Abdullah Badawi as prime minister in 2009 following UMNO’s poor performance in the 2008 general election, highlighting the importance of political legitimacy. The second centered on the dismissal of Muhyiddin Yassin as deputy prime minister in 2015 over questions about the financial scandal at 1MDB. The creation of 1MDB itself was part of state strategies for accumulation by distributing patronage to segments of the Malay intermediate classes, such as Class F contractors. In this case, the negative net effect of rents meant that the pattern of accumulation was increasingly unsustainable, thereby increasing the likelihood of conflict.

Episodes of conflict in each phase of development related to the economic imperative for growth and corresponded with economic slowdown or crises that occurred as a result of external shocks and/or internal factors. Conflict at the end of Phase 1 occurred against a backdrop of high unemployment and poverty that was accentuated along ethnic lines. Low levels of job creation lagged behind population growth, contributing to an increase in unemployment from 6 percent (1960) to 8 percent (1970), while poverty was estimated at 49.3 percent (74 percent for Malay households) (Abdul Rahman 1996).

Conflict in Phase 2 was related to the fiscal burden of a large, financially draining public sector associated with the NEP, which became unsustainable with the global recession in the 1980s when GDP growth fell from 7.8 percent (1984) to −1.1 percent (1985). Government expenditure was further constrained by falling oil prices (1982–86), the collapse of the tin market (1985), and declining prices of other major exports (after 1984) (Gomez and Jomo 1997) that substantially increased the budget deficit from RM120 million (1981) to RM3.5 billion (1987). The fall in oil prices in 1982 coincided with declining natural resource rents from 29 percent of GDP to 20 percent, leading to a reduction in government expenditure from 18 percent to 14.5 percent between 1982 and 1984 (World Bank), which constrained the state’s ability to redistribute.

Conflict in Phase 3 occurred during the 1997–98 Asian financial crisis when GDP growth fell from 10 percent (1996) to −7.4 percent (1998). Again, the very sharp decline in natural resource rents as a share of GDP from 37.6 percent (1979) to 8.1 percent (1999) further curtailed government expenditure, which declined from 16.7 percent (1986) to 9.8 percent (1998) as a share of GDP. Conflict in Phase 4 corresponded with a long-term economic slowdown associated with premature deindustrialization from 2000 that was exacerbated by the global financial crisis in 2008. Average economic growth was the lowest, at 5.1 percent, in Phase 4; and growth was even lower, at 4.6 percent, after Najib Razak’s appointment as prime minister in 2009. Lower economic growth made it increasingly difficult to finance and distribute patronage, leading to the prime minister’s increased centralization of control of GLICs and GLCs (Gomez et al. 2018) and short-term, risky, and blatant forms of accumulation, most notably through 1MDB.

IV Conclusion

This paper has sought to explain conflict in Malaysia in terms of the tension between economic growth and political stability. These imperatives have necessitated the analysis of different types of rent to promote growth and maintain stability, and the influence of social forces in their allocation. Stability depends on sustainable growth for the continued transfer of rents for accommodation. Sustainable growth in turn depends on sustainable patterns of accumulation that require a positive net effect of rents, where the benefits of rents to promote learning and accumulation outweigh the costs of rents for accommodation.

The state’s capacity to promote productive accumulation, manage learning rents, and limit rents for accommodation was constrained by its connections, through UMNO, with the Malay intermediate classes, and the threat these classes posed as UMNO’s core membership and constituency. These classes increased pressure for redistribution, initially through rents for accommodation that were disconnected from the drivers of economic growth in the manufactured exports sector. Domestic patterns of accumulation that accompanied the growth of the Malay intermediate classes, and the transition of segments of these into businessmen, were often short term and unsustainable, centered on the pursuit of quick profits such as through the sale of shares and contracts allocated to Bumiputera. This required continued state support in the form of protection and increasing rents for accumulation in unproductive sectors.

Despite what would appear to be a negative net effect of rents across the four development phases, the state was able to promote (non-domestic) accumulation and hence growth through MNC-led industrialization. However, the long-term consequence of the disconnect between domestic accumulation and manufacturing was the lack of domestic technological and manufacturing capabilities to compete globally, a subsequent shift in the pattern of domestic accumulation away from manufacturing, and the long-term economic slowdown after 2000 associated with premature deindustrialization, with growth no longer driven by manufacturing.

Conflicts in each phase of accumulation were related to unsustainable patterns of accumulation arising from the allocation of rents for accumulation in sectors outside of manufacturing, and the state’s inability to ensure that learning rents led to technological and industrial upgrading. Conflict across all four phases of development was the logical outcome of increasing contestation in the context of the greatly expanded Malay intermediate classes and economic slowdown and/or crisis. This heightened contestation and conflict over rent allocation led to an increasingly factionalized UMNO and fragmented patron-client networks, shifted the balance of power, and compromised the state’s ability to balance economic and political imperatives because political patrons were increasingly reliant on the political support of clients in UMNO elections. This made it more difficult for the state to withdraw rents or enforce discipline and performance targets because the balance of power was not in its favor.

In the absence of a successful Malay capitalist class, the state once again took the lead in the accumulation process through GLICs and GLCs in Phase 4. GLCs were thus an economic and political response to the failure of Malay capital. However, accumulation preferences under GLCs further reinforced Malaysia’s shift away from manufacturing and toward unsustainable patterns of accumulation. Political contestation increased pressure on patrons (politicians) to allocate rents for accommodation that increasingly also included rents for accumulation. Hence, where rents for accumulation were previously kept separate and enabled the state to promote accumulation in productive sectors such as manufacturing, the allocation of rents for accumulation for the purposes of accommodation led instead to increasingly unproductive forms of accumulation in unproductive sectors.

Several implications arise from these observations. First, the political influence of the Malay intermediate classes has been largely understudied and underestimated. The creation of these classes was important for achieving interethnic parity and hence maintaining stability, but their expansion fueled further conflict and political instability. Contrary to the elite-centered focus in the literature on conflict in Malaysia, the analysis of rents and patron-client networks suggests that elite fractiousness is largely a manifestation of underlying political pressure from clients, particularly the Malay intermediate classes, through their connections with various political factions within UMNO.

Second, the idea that the Malay middle classes emerged and expanded as a result of conscious planning by a “developmentalist state” (Abdul Rahman 1996) is based on an elite-centered analysis of the state that is disconnected from society and social forces. The incorporation of the demands of the Malay intermediate classes into the NEP suggests that these classes were already present and exerted political influence. State interventions and motivations thus need to be anchored in an analysis of social forces and their connections with the state.

Third, premature deindustrialization is itself related to the state prioritizing unproductive over productive rents and foreign-led over domestic manufacturing. This potentially increases the future likelihood of increasing contestation and conflict in the absence of alternative sources of sustainable growth.

Accepted: June 29, 2018


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Vol. 7, No. 3, KHOO Boo Teik


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 3

Introduction: A Moment to Mull, a Call to Critique

Khoo Boo Teik*

* The National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, 7-22-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-8677, Japan
e-mail: khoo-bt[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.7.3_271

The year 2017, which marked the 60th year since the Federation of Malaya emerged from colonial rule to become a new nation, was a compelling moment to reflect on important social, economic, cultural, and political developments and changes that had taken place. Some changes were realized more or less as planned, while others were unforeseen. Some fulfilled hopes, but others scuttled expectations. Many brought lasting outcomes but many more only transitory impacts. This chapter serves as the introduction to a volume of articles that views Malaysia’s multidimensional social transformation through lenses of “divides and dissent” to appraise key moments, incidents and expressions of contention, and trends of conflict that have shaped society and politics. The areas and issues covered by this exercise of critical reflection are ethnicity and class, political economy, federal-state relations, Islamism and Islamist practices, law and the judiciary, women’s participation in politics, art and pedagogy, and the emergence of new streams of sociopolitical dissent.

Keywords: Malaysia, ethnicity and class, political economy, federal-state relations, Islamism, law and judiciary, women’s participation, art and pedagogy, sociopolitical dissent

The year 2017 marked the 60th year since the Federation of Malaya emerged from colonial rule to become a new nation. The appropriateness of commemorating August 31, 1957, the date of Merdeka or Malayan independence, instead of September 16, 1963, the date of formation of the Federation of Malaysia, as National Day was sometimes—and with reason—disputed by people in Sabah and Sarawak, which joined Malaya and Singapore to form Malaysia.1) Yet there was (more than) a historic ring to “60 years” that made 2017 a compelling moment to reflect on important social, economic, cultural, and political developments and changes that had taken place, many of which had Malayan and not just Malaysian roots. Some of those changes were realized more or less as planned,2) while others were unforeseen.3) Some fulfilled hopes,4) but others scuttled expectations.5) Many brought lasting outcomes,6) many more only transitory impacts.7) Whatever their sources, internal or external, and however they might have begun, in clarity or in doubt, those changes in their totality had transformed the nation and society from their original state.

Fresh Lenses of “Divides and Dissent”

At a time like this, a standard way of reflecting on the processes of national and social transformation and their consequences is to observe, accounting-like, a record of “continuity with change” or create a register of “change with continuity.” This volume of essays does not tread such a path of commemorative self-reassurance! Instead, the essays view Malaysia’s multidimensional social transformation through contrarian lenses of “divides and dissent” to appraise key moments, incidents and expressions of contention, and trends of conflict that have shaped society and politics.

Even so, this volume does not contain a call to celebrate instability or rejoice in discord. Suffice it for clarification here to recall that after Merdeka, every 10th year before 2017 had seen a major manifestation of social divide and political dissent. In 1967 there was the hartal in Penang, the unplanned but violent by-product of which presaged the much worse eruption of interethnic violence in Kuala Lumpur on May 13, 1969. “May 13” itself supplied the state with the justification for the radically transformative but politically divisive New Economic Policy. In 1977 the federal government’s imposition of Emergency rule over Kelantan terminated the collaboration between the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS, Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party) in the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN, National Front). The revived UMNO-PAS antagonism, moreover, reshaped the contours of PAS’s internal politics and established new parameters for the politics of Islam. Ten years later, UMNO suffered a profound crisis of leadership that split the party and convulsed the entire political system, affecting state and society from the peninsula to Sabah and Sarawak. From the split came a precedent: dissidents forced out of UMNO would mobilize to defeat their former party. A decade after that, the East Asian financial crisis sparked a disaster of political economy that impaired Vision 2020, Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s ambitious project of socioeconomic advancement, and generated waves of political ferment that have not receded to this day. And in 2007, a trinity of mass demonstrations, separately organized by the Bar Council, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (BERSIH), and the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF), set in motion the momentous “tsunami,” or the opposition’s unprecedented gains in the general election of the following year.

There were, of course, many other divisive incidents and dissident articulations in the intervening years. Some were more serious and threatening or, conversely, more promising than others. The objective of this volume is to use the theme of “divides and dissent” to look at society afresh by picking out social, economic, and political tensions that have been embedded only to surface in sharp controversies, astounding incidents, or portentous trends. By analyzing the tensions in certain sectors, the contributors to this volume explain how some of the tensions have been resolved and why others have remained unsettled.

Three points about this volume should be made at the outset. First, it is not meant to be a comprehensive 60-year recitation of familiar background and overworked issues. Second, focusing on divides and dissent in sociopolitical transformation does not presuppose conformity with any particular theoretical or paradigmatic stance. Third, not all tensions are assumed to be dismal or ominous; some may provide the impetus for rethinking social change or redirecting institutional reform. As such, each contributor to this volume has been free to be selective (of issues, incidents, and actors), subjective (in vantage point), and, if necessary, searing (in commentary and evaluation) while observing scholastic standards. The goal is a collection of bold and personal but coherent interpretations of the divides and dissent in Malaysian society.

The Structure of the Volume

No social schism in Malaysia has seemed as natural and intractable as its ethnic divide. Ethnicity is invasive in its social life and pervasive in the study of its politics. Still, as Abdul Rahman Embong (Chapter 2) stresses, ethnicity no less than class is a social construct and paradigm. In fact, ethnic and class divides are historically constituted, grounded in political economy, and moored to state policies that, wittingly or otherwise, provoke dissent in different classes, groups, and organizations. Besides, there has always been a complex contestation between ethnicity and class not only “as social facts, policies, and programs” but also “as paradigms, or ways of thinking and analysis.” In the 1980s, for example, UMNO’s ideologues re-fashioned the “plural society and ethnic bloc” thesis as an ideology of ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) by manufacturing notions of Malay “first-ness” and original ownership of the land to legitimize ethnically determined claims on power and privileges. Yet class is ever present in ownership and control of wealth, state-capital relations, transformation of the middle and working classes, politics and civil society organizations, and the workings of globalization. For Rahman, ethnic-class contestation is expressed in the competing visions and struggles of political coalitions that arose or disappeared at different historical moments. In recent times, that contestation and its accompanying dissent partly compelled state economic planning, which long entrenched ethnicity in policy direction and programmatic design, to incorporate “income class categories” to address the class dimensions of “social exclusion and income inequality.” In that continuing contestation lies a hope that Malaysia may not be “trapped in the ethnic paradigm” and Malaysian studies may not be skewed by the “ethnic prism.”

In fact, ethnicity and class and the state interact to produce ruptures and conflict, as Jeff Tan (Chapter 3) demonstrates with his schematic four-phase depiction of economic development from 1957 to 2016 in terms of cycles of accumulation and conflict. For each phase the state was impelled to allocate rents for accumulation and accommodation to balance economic growth with political stability. But emergent Malay intermediate classes tilted the balance toward redistribution, intensifying contestation over rents, factionalizing UMNO, and fragmenting patron-client networks. Politically, the accumulation-accommodation dialectic produced episodic conflict in or around 1969, 1987, 1998, and 2016. Economically, pressures for redistribution subverted the state’s ability to deploy rents for productive accumulation, in manufacturing, say, and diverted learning rents from technological and industrial upgrading to accumulation in unproductive sectors. But the economy could not deliver high enough growth rates to sustain redistribution when manufacturing, previously the engine of growth, faltered. Recent long-term declines in GDP growth, Tan contends, reflect the cumulative effects of unproductive accumulation, including premature deindustrialization. At the center of this situation stands the core constituency of UMNO and the state, namely, the Malay intermediate classes. Large segments of them, unable to rise as a successful Malay capitalist class, rely on rents and state protection for quick profits from unproductive accumulation. The state cannot now undo its previous neglect to enforce discipline or performance targets. The state seeks instead to lead the accumulation process again via government-linked corporations (GLCs). Tan concludes, however, that the turn to GLCs as a politico-economic response to the failure of Malay capital rigidifies current accumulation preferences and reinforces the shift from higher-level manufacturing.

Sabah and Sarawak, as Faisal Hazis (Chapter 4) shows, have always faced a peculiar divide in their relations with the federal government. Three factors periodically remold those relations. First, there is history. When Malaysia was formed, Sabah and Sarawak were accorded “safeguards”—the “Twenty Points” for Sabah and “Eighteen Points” for Sarawak—or a large degree of state government control of many matters elsewhere administered by the federal government. Second, there is geography. Their physical separation from the peninsula, the locus of federal power and a more advanced economy, rarely eases resentments in Sabah and Sarawak over their domination and neglect by the federation. Third, the states have been ruled by local strongmen who, despite their different interests and agendas, personify the two states’ continual attempts to juggle amity with autonomy vis-à-vis the federal government. Thus, Faisal suggests, the divide between Sabah and Sarawak, and the peninsula crucially rests on center-periphery-like negotiation over power, resources, and the strongmen’s reliability. Out of this comes an amalgam of “domination, contestation, and accommodation,” in Faisal’s view the leitmotif of Sabah and Sarawak’s uneasy 54 years in Malaysia. Rules have been set and reset to manage this elite-level divide before. The situation, however, has become more complex. Sabah and Sarawak, long taken for granted as the BN’s vote banks, are more assertive, Faisal observes, now that BN and the opposition are virtually stalemated in the peninsula. And, if they seem remote from the post-1998 dissident ferment on the peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak could yet experience a contrasting divide as “pockets of resistance” oppose the corruption, abuse of power, inequitable growth, land grabbing, and shrinking democratic space associated with local strongman rule.

Islam as faith and as official religion does not in itself create a contentious divide where the constitution guarantees freedom of worship for adherents of other religions, who form almost half the population. But as Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid (Chapter 5) observes, an interplay of Islam and politics in public space over 60 years has created intra-Muslim and interreligious rifts. One source of the divisiveness is discursive. It lies in an unrelenting engagement by an assortment of politicians, commentators, scholars, bureaucrats, and civil society activists in a discourse of Islamic politics to impose social control or to express dissent. By essentializing Islam for political interests, that engagement arrests the evolution of concepts of “religion” and “secularism” and hardens boundaries between what is considered Islamic or un-Islamic. Here, contemporary Islamic discourse in Malaysia inclines toward a severe politico-legal direction that consigns the philosophical and spiritual aspects of Islam to the periphery of the Malay-Muslim religious worldview. When it is defined, interrogated, and essentialized through institutional lenses, Islam invariably bears politico-legal coloring. A practical consequence is to undermine a “much-cherished multiculturalism and pluralism” by systematically marginalizing non-Muslim and unorthodox Muslim voices. Another source of divisiveness is policy making that “professes fealty to Islam” while adopting an ideology of Islamism or Wahhabi-Salafi-driven political Islam that is preoccupied with the legalistic injunctions and prohibitions of Islam. Without an internalization of Islam as a religious faith in all its civilizational manifestations, Ahmad Fauzi cautions, it would not be difficult at the present juncture for Islamism to acquire “a little addition of jihadism” and turn toward violent extremism.

In a common law system, Azmi Sharom (Chapter 6) notes, the judiciary bears considerable responsibility for minimizing “partial and imbalanced decision making” to prevent unnecessary conflict and maintain “enough space for dissent.” On this score, and especially in recent times, Azmi Sharom argues, landmark cases show the Malaysian judiciary to have failed. For instance, court rulings on several cases of religious controversy ignored unambiguous constitutional provisions, such as the freedom of worship, or disingenuously interpreted the constitution without offering sound legal reasoning or firm historical foundation. To that extent, the judiciary has not lessened but effectively exacerbated the interreligious divisiveness (to which Ahmad Fauzi’s essay also refers). Nor can the judiciary be credited with upholding democracy. Judges have mostly treated dissent with suspicion rather than protect it by rigorously testing laws that were enacted to quell dissent against fundamental principles of democracy. The constitution does not have an encompassing statement of a “higher ideal,” but, Azmi Sharom argues, other historical documents show the nation’s founders aspiring toward an ethos of equality among citizens. When judges proffer literalist interpretations of the law bereft of a higher ideal, however, they undermine respect for fair electoral choice or transparent decision making. Finally, Azmi Sharom insists that in a nation saddled with ethno-religious schisms, the judiciary is duty-bound to protect the spaces open to lawfully conducted, alternative, and dissident viewpoints on controversial matters. He declines to speculate on judges’ motives but concludes that the judiciary has failed to perform that duty.

Across social divides posed by ethnicity, class, religion, and gender, Malaysian women have never been politically quiescent. They have been involved in a full spectrum of pre- and post-independence political activity, whether they belonged with the establishment, the opposition, or nonpartisan civil society. The prominence of women in the movement for electoral reform, BERSIH, for example, is evidence of their continuing political presence. Yet their representation in formal political positions is not commensurate with their record of activity. Among Southeast Asian parliaments, Malaysia’s has one of the lowest proportions of women as parliamentarians. Maznah Mohamad (Chapter 7) suggests, though, that women’s involvement in formal politics has taken on novel characteristics since new divides and fresh waves of dissent emerged from 1999. She explores the specificities of women’s ground-level experience in formal politics to explain what really goes on at the everyday level when women navigate politics that is not favorable to their presence. She asks how women’s involvement in formal politics can be expanded via social, political, and administrative processes that can cohere as a strategy for strengthening their electoral advantage. Those processes include the collaboration between women’s civil society and state political actors, the cultivation of clientelist and patronage relations, and the maintenance of a cohesive multiparty opposition coalition. Such a combination, Maznah contends, could have a bearing on subsequent “formalization” of women in politics. Drawing from current practices and conscious of the tenuousness of political alliances in the present state of politics, she regards some form of a gender quota mechanism as being part of a more reliable method of increasing women’s representation.

The political ferment of the past three decades or so found many forms of dissident creative expression, in literary work, art, theater, film, cartoons, and even posters and banners used in demonstrations. Simon Soon (Chapter 8) posts a reminder, however, that intersections of creativity and dissent need not be demarcated by individual rebellion or precipitated by moments of political crisis. Soon reflects on some artists’ projects of “building a critical mass” that depart from the standard narrative of art and politics that links artistic output to critical juncture. With an eye on historical conditions, he examines the thoughts and actions, motives and impacts of at least two generations of artists who have moved from the politics to the art of pedagogy. Soon’s subjects cover established artists of international repute, individual figures of dissident art, and loosely structured reading or study or experimental art groups. These subjects form a broad countermovement to the institutionalization of art and pedagogy by dissenting against conventions of postcolonial higher education within. From Soon’s perspective, movements of the “art of pedagogy” spurn the sociocultural codes and political decorum of institutions of art in search of an alternative mode of creativity attuned to the current sociopolitical situation. Dissent within the ranks of creative artists is not bound to the conventional idea of an artist producing an image to deliver a political message. Even then, creativity in dissent has become part of social-engagement projects that have seen eruptions of expression, not least in the streets and over cyberspace.

Khoo Boo Teik (Chapter 9) explores connections between social divides, which stimulate or provoke dissent, and dissident interventions that change the contours of social divides. He focuses on dissident convergence and oppositional transformation that have altered the terrain and terms of politics within the past 20 years. He argues for a dynamic view of waves of dissent that emerged, receded, or resurged to challenge the regime. Separately viewed or organized as Reformasi, BERSIH, and HINDRAF, post-September 1998 dissent mobilized alongside an opposition project that had poor results before making a historic electoral breakthrough in 2008. Another spurt gave the opposition, now institutionalized as Pakatan Rakyat (PR, People’s Pact), its best electoral result in 2013; but this second coalition was still unable to unseat the ruling coalition. Thereafter, external repression, internal disunity, and fortuitous events combined to unravel the PR. But ironically, just when the opposition was headed for another nadir, new scandals and fresh crises struck at the regime and once again divided UMNO’s leadership. As a result, new sociopolitical divides have sprung up, the regime is hobbled, and a restructured opposition coalition struggles to coordinate dissent. What social transformation has produced this uncharted political terrain? What has been the impact of broad, deep, and sustained dissent on contemporary politics? What are the implications for political contestation when neither the opposition nor the regime can claim a convincing hold over the popular imagination? Addressing these and related questions, Khoo’s analysis brings the situation up to the moment of writing (March 2017).

This volume does not offer a collective conclusion on an overall situation that remained fluid. Up to the eve of the 60th anniversary of Merdeka, perhaps only this much could be said with some certainty about current political struggles in Malaysia: the divides and dissent in society and politics endured, not as ossified fixtures but in contingent forms that were dynamically reconfigured as historical conditions and the composition of protagonists changed.

Accepted: June 29, 2018


Between the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, when the manuscript of this Special Issue was accepted for publication, the opposing sides in the political system made their preparations to contest in the 14th General Election (GE14). There was intensive campaigning even before Parliament was dissolved or the date of GE14 was announced. In the event GE14, that covered the elections for Parliament and the Legislative Assembly in all states except Sarawak, was held on May 9, 2018. There was considerable excitement in GE14 as a new unified opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan (Harapan, or Pact of Hope) led by Dr. Mahathir Mohamad mobilized to challenge the incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN, or National Front) headed by Prime Minister Najib Razak. The latter expected to win comfortably. Its advantages were obvious: the powers of incumbency, newly passed electoral re-delineation that heavily favored BN’s dominant partner, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), and the refusal of the opposition party, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS, or Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party), to cooperate with Harapan. The outcome of GE14, known late in the evening of May 9, registered tremendous shock around the world: the two-year old Harapan had won and its 92-year old leader, Mahathir, became the “7th Prime Minister,” having been the “4th Prime Minister” from 1981 to 2003.

One must resist passing off hindsight as prescience. Even so one might say with reference to the theme of this volume of essays that Malaysia’s “divides and dissent” had culminated via GE14 in “regime change” for the first time in 61 years after Merdeka. How might the analyses in this volume guide an understanding of post-GE14 society and politics? Some pointers may be considered here.

First, a superficial review of the post-GE14 distribution of representation and power suggests that the divides of ethnicity and class persist but in modified forms. In Peninsular Malaysia, Harapan’s staunchest support at the national level lay in the urban non-Malay-majority and ethnically-mixed constituencies. While it won a number of rural Malay seats once steadfastly loyal to UMNO Harapan could not match the influence of UMNO and PAS in constituencies with very large Malay majorities. At the state level, Harapan swept the ethnically mixed, highly urbanized, and economically developed west coast from Kedah in the north to Johor in the south. But four predominantly rural Malay states were split between PAS and UMNO. The former retained Kelantan and won Terengganu on the east coast. The latter held onto Perlis, the smallest and northernmost state, and Pahang, the largest and central-eastern state. The post-GE14 balance of power bears a resemblance to the situation after the first Malayan general election of 1959 when the Alliance (BN’s predecessor) won all states except Kelantan and Terengganu which were taken by PAS. To some extent, GE14 has reproduced an old rural-urban divide that overlapped with demographic divisions between Malays and non-Malays, and economic differences between less developed and more prosperous communities. But GE14 brought peaceful regime change with no trace of the interethnic tensions that led to violence after the general election of May 1969. Ethnicity and class remain salient but altered sites of social divides (see Abdul Rahman Embong in this volume). Whether and how they serve as sources of dissent towards the new regime will depend, among others, on how all political parties in power or opposition grapple with the ethnic-class implications of GE14 not for their political strategies alone but also policies.

Second, another version of a regional divide—between the peninsula, and Sabah and Sarawak—remains but again it has been modified by GE14. Sabah re-enacted the theme of a “strongman-led” state government seeking balance with a peninsula-dominated federal government (see Faisal Hazis in this volume). This time Shafie Apdal led a new regionalist Parti Warisan Sabah (Warisan, or Sabah Heritage Party) (see Khoo Boo Teik, Chapter 9, in this volume) to form a coalition government with smaller parties. For GE14 Warisan and Harapan were allies. Harapan won some parliamentary seats against BN but stayed away from state contests. Thus, Harapan accepted the old regionalist refrain of “Sabah for Sabahans” that was revived by Warisan’s mobilization. For its part, Warisan committed its parliamentarians to the Harapan-headed federal government. In Sarawak, BN’s constellation of state-based parties held a majority of the parliamentary seats against several Harapan gains. But when national defeat cast them as the opposition, Sarawak’s BN parties abandoned the BN framework. They now form a loose “Sarawak only” coalition that rules Sarawak since there was no state election in 2018. After an eventual state election, probably to be held within two years, a formal coalition will emerge to re-negotiate Sarawak’s relationship with the peninsula. Meanwhile Harapan has indicated its willingness to review key provisions that governed the original merger of Sabah and Sarawak with Malaya to form Malaysia in 1963.

Third, much of Harapan’s electoral mobilization had drawn on converging streams of popular dissent over quotidian hardships, high-level corruption, institutional degradation, diminished civil liberties, and so on (see Khoo Boo Teik, Chapter 9, in this volume). Mahathir’s Cabinet, mostly constituted of experienced dissidents, responded to mass expectations of reform. It would take longer to overcome economic hardship but the extremely unpopular Goods and Services Tax was abolished. Within days of GE14, a full royal pardon was secured that released Anwar Ibrahim from prison with all charges against him officially erased. Then came an anti-authoritarian turn true to Harapan’s promise of a democratic environment with free media and respect for civil liberties. Reform was swiftly conducted in law and the judiciary that had previously been abused for repression (see Azmi Sharom in this volume): politically motivated suits against dissidents were withdrawn; unjust verdicts against oppositionists were overturned; reputable untainted figures were appointed to the offices of Attorney-General, Chief Justice of the Federal Court, and Speaker of the Parliament. The work of repealing notoriously repressive laws was begun. Where the previous regime was suspected of covering up corruption, the new regime legally attacked impunity for high corruption, above all by resuming the official investigation of the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) financial scandal (see Khoo Boo Teik, Chapter 9, in this volume) with the cooperation of foreign jurisdictions. At the time of writing, Najib Razak has been charged with 32 counts of criminal breach, corrupt abuse of power, and money laundering, many traceable to 1MDB. His wife, Rosmah Mansor, faces 17 counts of money laundering and tax evasion. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) has frozen 408 individual and/or corporate bank accounts (some belonging to UMNO and BN parties) suspected of receiving money originating in 1MDB. Mahathir acted to reform the civil service. Many high-ranking public officials resigned or were effectively dismissed. The most prominent of them were the Attorney-General, the Chief Justice, the President of the Court of Appeal, the Director of MACC, the Governor of Bank Negara (the central bank), the Secretary-General of the Treasury, and an assortment of senior officials of government-linked corporations. Moreover, the regime terminated 17,000 “political appointments” and closed some agencies as part of conducting institutional cleansing and rationalization on a scale not seen before.

Fourth, it is not only pre-GE14 dissent that matters. Post-GE14 dissent is obviously present. For the time being its principal expressions come from a defeated UMNO and an unvanquished PAS. The principal leaders of the two parties try to erect an ideological “Malay first and Islamist” defense of “race, religion and (Malay) rulers.” This politicization of ethno-religious tenets and anxieties (see Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid in this volume) occasionally creates controversies over such matters as sexuality, child marriage, appointments (of non-Malays or non-Muslims) to senior public office, the use of non-Malay languages in public communications, and so on. The ethno-religious attacks on Harapan have not made much headway. The regime’s leaders are mostly Malay-Muslim, and Prime Minister Mahathir is iconic of the Malay-led multi-ethnic leadership and “progressive Islam” of his time. In two recent post-GE14 bye-elections (occasioned by the death through illness of the incumbents), UMNO and PAS, which took turns to contest while publicly espousing their alliance, were both defeated by Harapan candidates.

Finally, political economy will surely have an influence over the transition to “New Malaysia,” Harapan and its supporters characterize the post-GE14 situation. The defeat of UMNO and the anti-corruption campaign that targets its leaders and their allies have severely diminished the material resources that they once took for granted. As a political party, UMNO is financially strapped as it had never been before. An example is the virtually bankrupt position of Utusan Malaysia, UMNO’s Malay-language daily newspaper; its financial losses cannot be offset by fresh infusions of money from either UMNO or the government. Yet one must assume that the ranks of UMNO-associated businesses used to many forms of rent-seeking before (see Jeff Tan in this volume) must harbor grievances that can be readily expressed as political dissent if the economy falters or if they are unable to re-negotiate their way in a milieu where business is largely separated from politics, that being the goal of a good portion of the Harapan leadership that wants to see “good governance, transparency, and accountability.”

It is infeasible to cover divides and dissent in many other areas. It is hoped that the Introduction and the Postscript can server as a guide to how the theme may be explored beyond this Special Issue.

1) See the essay on Sabah and Sarawak (Chapter 4); its title refers to 54 years of being in Malaysia.

2) Those include major schemes of rural development and projects of urbanization.

3) Singapore’s separation from Malaysia just two years after the latter’s formation was a shocking development.

4) The hopes vested in the New Economic Policy’s twin objectives of poverty eradication and restructuring were realized to a considerable degree.

5) The impact of the East Asian financial crisis of 1997 dashed predictions of continued rapid economic growth.

6) Begun in the early 1970s, export-oriented industrialization retains its economic importance to the present.

7) A policy to change from teaching science and mathematics in the Malay language to English was barely implemented when controversy reversed the switch.

8) Written on October 6, 2018.


Vol. 5, No. 1, KHOO

Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 1 

Networks in Pursuit of a “Two-Coalition System” in Malaysia: Pakatan Rakyat’s Mobilization of Dissent between Reformasi and the Tsunami

Khoo Boo Teik*

* National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, 7-22-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-8677, Japan

e-mail: booteik[at]

In Malaysia’s 12th general election, in March 2008, three opposition parties collectively cracked the hegemony of the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN, or National Front). As the opposition parties formed a coalition called Pakatan Rakyat (PR, or People’s Alliance), a two-coalition system appeared to have taken shape. This essay analyzes how PR reached that electoral outcome by moving from “imagining” to “realizing” dissent. Imagining and realizing dissent are not treated as disparate acts here but as tasks borne by qualitatively different networks that helped PR to overcome its structural, organizational, and resource disadvantages. The first networks considered are the cyber-networks that used ICT-sited or -enabled links to construct an alternative media linking PR’s organizers and supporters in an imagined community of dissent. PR’s second type of network consisted of physical coalitions—groups and organizations that connected the PR parties with their allies in civil society and their supporters at large. Their common objective was to mobilize dissent for electoral contestation. Even after 2008, however, PR was vulnerable to regime harassment and blandishments because it was missing a third type of network that would link party structures and social, community, and civic associations. By analyzing PR’s networks, this essay offers a fresh perspective on the travails of building a two-coalition system.

Keywords: Malaysia, 2008 general election, Pakatan Rakyat, cyber-networks, two-coalition system

In Malaysia’s 12th general election, held on March 8, 2008, 49 percent of the electorate voted for the non-formalized opposition coalition—made up of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, or People’s Justice Party), Parti Islam (PAS, or Islamic Party), and Democratic Action Party (DAP)—and finally cracked the hegemonic hold of the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN, or National Front). The opposition made electoral history by winning 82 of 222 seats in Parliament, thus denying the BN its customary two-thirds majority. Among the 11 states in Peninsular Malaysia, the principal political arena, the combined opposition that later formalized its coalition with the name of Pakatan Rakyat (PR, or People’s Alliance) took control of the state governments of Kedah, Kelantan, Penang, Perak, and Selangor. In fact, the opposition won 10 of 11 parliamentary seats in Kuala Lumpur; but the national capital, by virtue of being a Federal Territory, continued to be administered by the BN-led federal government.

By the standards of Malaysian elections, the regime had been struck by the most destructive wave of voter dissent or the most disastrous convergence of socio-political conditions ever—hence the popular use of the terms “tsunami” and “perfect storm”1) to depict the outcome of the election. No doubt, the two metaphors had to be used with care. A genuine political tsunami would have swept the BN from power altogether. And a perfect storm would not have completely bypassed Sabah and Sarawak.

Even so, a watershed had been reached and a two-coalition system might finally have taken shape within Malaysian politics. Since 1990, various dissident parties had envisaged and striven to establish such a system (Khoo 2003, 159–164). But only the present opposition—hereafter PR (unless clearly inapposite)—had actually advanced toward that goal in 2008. To put it differently, one might say that PR had progressed from imagining to realizing dissent, no matter that PR had a long way to go before reaching its ultimate goal of supplanting BN in governing the country. To be sure, it would not do to cast imagination and realization as two disparate acts occurring in strictly demarcated phases. But imagining and realizing dissent may be depicted as two principal tasks to clarify certain qualitative differences between the networks that helped PR in its progression to the tsunami in 2008 from Reformasi in 1999, the latter being the inchoate movement of dissent triggered by mass outrage against the maltreatment of Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim—sacked by Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad on September 2, expelled by UMNO (United Malays National Organization) on September 3, and imprisoned by the regime from September 20 (ibid., 100–108).

The first networks to consider are the cyber-networks, which broadly included the information and communication technology (ICT)-sited or -enabled links between e-mail lists, discussion groups, Web sites, online media, online forums, blogs, text messages, etc. These cyber-networks were able to perform some crucial functions, from gathering information to disseminating reports, from rallying opinion to rebutting official claims, and from questioning mainstream news reporting to constructing alternative media. In short, PR’s cyber-networks wove a web of counter-hegemonic discourses that helped the coalition’s organizers, allies, and supporters to imagine themselves as a community of dissent.

PR’s second type of network consisted of physical coalitions. The term, despite its lexical imprecision, refers to various groupings and organizations having different structures and degrees of cohesion, which brought together PR parties, their allies in civil society, and their supporters at large. These coalitions—themselves offline and ground-level networks of people—were formed for a range of political actions that extended from issuing informal appeals to joining ad hoc activities, participating in structured events, and making highly organized interventions. The common objective of these actions was to realize dissent through electoral contestation.

I Cyber-Networks and a Community of Dissent

In the wake of the tsunami, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi conceded that BN had lost the “cyberspace war.”2) Perhaps Abdullah was being self-serving when he paid that backhanded compliment to PR’s cyber-networks, which had battled the pro-state print and broadcast media and sought to offset the structural advantages in electoral competition that BN enjoyed after a half-century’s exercise of power.3) The regime did not earnestly rein in the ICT-based alternative media, notably by threatening to use the notorious Internal Security Act, for several reasons. Mahathir had given a no-censorship guarantee when he launched the internationally targeted Multimedia Super Corridor project in 1996. Moreover, the regime grudgingly accepted that the Internet could not be effectively censored or policed. (Hence, for example, Mahathir merely advised Malaysian Internet users to be guided by their own values when surfing.) Beyond that, BN had overvalued its monopoly of the print and broadcast media, which were controlled via selective ownership of press and broadcasting stations, tight regulation, and constant oversight. As Abdullah admitted, “We thought the newspapers, the print media, the television were important but young people were looking at text messages and blogs.”4) Yet, UMNO had not neglected the Internet. In fact, UMNO had set up a “new media unit” of “cyber-troopers” that “managed to balance the game” against the Opposition back in 2004, only “to lag behind . . . unaware the landscape had changed in 2008. It was no longer write-ups, there were a lot of slanderous pictures and videos, that’s why we got knocked out” (Aw 2012).5)

The origins of dissident cyber-networks lay in the politics of Reformasi. Tech-savvy dissidents set up numerous pro-Reformasi e-mail discussion groups, Web sites, and online forums, many linked to one another.6) They did this out of compulsion, resorting to new forms of IT-based media, aware that the opposition parties and civil society dissidents had been routinely misrepresented, maligned, or shut out by the state-controlled mass media. But they also did it by choice since their expressions and reports of anti-regime activity as well as state repression could be disseminated far more effectively, quickly, experimentally, and creatively.

Reformasi brought an unintended fulfillment of the regime’s slogan, Cintai IT! (Love IT!), as the Reformasi-minded and the merely curious surfed the Internet to post information, access materials, and connect with other people. Soon Reformasi Web sites carried countless and diverse postings, including announcements of Reformasi events; reproductions and translations of news reports; unofficial transcripts of Anwar’s trial proceedings and transcripts of interviews; press releases and eyewitness accounts of protests and public events; economic and political analyses; summaries of public talks; letters, appeals for support, petitions, and reminders on voter registration; rebuttals of official statements, diatribes against leading politicians, denunciations of senior public officials, and accusations against corporate figures; police reports and copies of official and purportedly official documents; poems, modern fables, photographs, and cartoons; and recordings of speeches and video clips. Of course, not all the material was verifiably correct or honest. How could it be in a climate of heightened politics and spreading anger? Suffice it to note that “[i]mpressions, fears, opinions, and conclusions are all traded equally on the Web” (Ayres 1999, 141). Moreover, an immeasurable amount of Internet material was downloaded, circulated by e-mail, reproduced in what print media existed for the Reformasi movement, and redistributed in the form of facsimiles and photocopies to those not connected to the Internet.

Many characteristics of cyberspace elsewhere probably fit these cyber-networks. Within the cyber-networks, those who chose to could remain unnamed and yet go public, and show no identity but still belong. They included people who managed Web sites with names such as Mahafiraun (Great Pharaoh) or Mahazalim (Great Tyrant) that derided their target—Mahathir. Likewise, free of censorship but not liberated from worries of state retribution, some well-known Web sites were anonymously maintained, in Malaysia or abroad. Yet their designations made clear the concerns and objectives of those who maintained, supported, and visited them: Laman Reformasi (Reformasi Web site), Jiwa Merdeka (Soul of Independence), Anwar Online, and freemalaysia. Whereas many people might well have been nervous about the risks of ground-level dissident activity, they could probably imagine engaging in dissent on the Internet precisely because, there, to engage was to imagine. The cyber-networks were not wholly faceless, though. There were Web sites of established opposition parties and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Other sites had well-publicized bloggers, such as Sabri Zain (Reformasi Diary), and webmasters, such as Raja Petra Kamaruddin (The Malaysian and Kini). These activists disdained concealing their names or goals; instead, they moved between the Street and the Net, striving to bridge any gulf between the imagined and physical communities.

The connections between the Internet, broadly conceived, and dissident politics since Reformasi have been variously discussed (Abbott 2001; Hilley 2001; Khoo 2003; Brown 2004; 2005; George 2006; Tan and Zawawi 2008; Steele 2009; Tan 2010). Yet, it is crucial here to orientate the discussion in a new direction by noting how dissident post-Reformasi cyber-networks fostered and strengthened a sense of community among those who had diverse motivations for opposing the regime and supporting the opposition as the 2008 general election approached. It may not be necessary to be able to tell precisely “when to apply the label ‘community’ to . . . resulting [Internet] interactions” (Bimber 1998, 146). But it was essential that the cyber-networks steadily occupied a “continuum of communities, identities, and networks . . . from the most cohesive to the most diffuse”7) by drawing in and linking to political parties, NGOs, alternative media, different groups, and countless individuals. Besides, those who engaged with the cyber-networks availed themselves of the

powerful counterhegemonic use of the Internet . . . [its] ability to communicate intersubjective knowledge—as much an attribute of hypertext as innate in the Internet. People from different places, with radically variant experiences, are able to convey a notion of what it is like to be them, to live their lives, via the Net. (Warf and Grimes 1997, 267)

Applied to Malaysia’s multi-ethnic society, the Internet’s ability “to communicate intersubjective knowledge,” facilitated by the surfing quality of Internet exploration, might have reduced sociocultural distances to some degree. Without extensive surveys, however, no one could reliably establish the density of such boundary-crossing networks. Even so, Internet users who habitually moved from one site to a wholly different one, culturally speaking, were likely to have virtually crossed rural-urban, interethnic, and interreligious divides. In the process, their practices had a good chance of moderating the alien feel to the physical communities they met or, just as often, did not meet in everyday life. Such cyber-crossings could diminish with time. At crucial moments of heightened dissent—during Reformasi and 2007–08—they could intensify the sense of belonging to an imagined community of dissent.

Sabri Zain’s Reformasi Diary was an outstanding example of how to manage “intersubjective knowledge” creatively and responsibly. Entry after entry in the diary recorded how, energized and transformed by Reformasi, “someone like him” could move between the Street and the Net, so to speak, from participating earnestly in protests and demonstrations to uploading eyewitness accounts conscientiously thereafter. On the ground, the crossings of sociocultural divides were daily multiplying in ways almost unimaginable before Reformasi (Khoo 2002). Elderly Chinese read PAS’s party organ, Harakah; the Selangor Chinese Town Hall Civil Rights Committee forum featured an all-Malay panel; Malays in large numbers attended the “Chinese” DAP forums; dissenting Malays kept a vigil for DAP’s Lim Guan Eng, whose defense of an underage Malay girl had led him to prison; and the oft-arrested and severely bashed Tian Chua emerged as a hero to the predominantly Malay protesters (Sabri 2000). On the Internet, as an observer of Reformasi was to say later, the linking of the opposition’s Web sites could encourage

greater interaction and negotiation between supporters of Malaysia’s often divided opposition. A PAS supporter in Kelantan may have little inclination or opportunity to engage with the West Coast, Chinese-based DAP. One click, however, can bring him from the PAS Web site to the DAP’s. Arguably, this represents the greatest counterhegemonic potential of the Internet for the opposition. (Brown 2004, 88)

Thus, for a civil society easily fragmented along ethnic and cultural lines, the cyber-networks permitted dissidence (and dissidents) increasingly to imagine itself (and themselves) a community unified by dissent rather than one split by dominant, narrowly communitarian narratives that served authoritarian purposes.

Even so, it would be judicious not to overrate the impact of Internet intervention in the political process between Reformasi and the tsunami. The proliferating pro-Reformasi Web sites, tentatively indicative of the opposition’s edge over the regime on the Web, failed to win the wired, tech-savvy urban voters to the opposition’s cause in the November 1999 election. Instead, it was the mostly “un-hooked,” rural Malay electorate placed at the poorer end of the urban-rural digital divide—and customarily captive to state-owned or -controlled broadcast and print media8)—that swung heavily against UMNO (Maznah 2003). At the 2004 general election, moreover, despite facing four and a half more years of expanding Internet penetration, growing sophistication of users, and improving quality of counter-hegemonic Web sites, BN (newly led by Abdullah Badawi) gained its largest ever victory. Anwar’s party, as some regarded PKR, was reduced to a single parliamentary seat that was retained by his wife, Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. To compound the dissidents’ disappointment, the strenuous, even heroic, efforts of the online Free Anwar Campaign and its kindred Web sites raised domestic and international awareness of Anwar’s plight, but he remained in prison for six years.

It might be briefly noted that the Reformasi milieu had been greatly dampened by various developments. In the 1999 election PAS and, to a lesser extent, PKR inflicted considerable losses on UMNO. But the opposition coalition (Barisan Alternative, BA, or Alternative Front) failed to dent BN’s domination, principally because DAP made no headway among the non-Malay voters (who rallied to Mahathir just as they had done in 1995). Not only was Anwar in prison, but leading Reformasi figures were swept into detention without trial in 2000. Not long after, growing differences between DAP and PAS, somewhat exacerbated by the worldwide repercussions of September 11, led to DAP’s departure from BA, thus leaving the coalition moribund.9) The Malay cultural revolt that sparked Reformasi failed to ignite a nationwide revolt, thus confining the imagined community of dissent as much as it restricted political dissent as a whole. Between 2000 and 2004, the number of blogs and Web sites grew tremendously without being able to reshape the unfavorable political reality. After all, “[i]nter-networked computers are cultural products that exist in the social and political worlds within which they were developed, and they are not exempt from the rules and norms of those worlds” (Wilson and Peterson 2002, 462). In that political ebb, the prospects for reform having receded, the cyber-networks of dissent that Reformasi inspired lost their vibrancy.

Yet, two nodes were separately formed that helped to lay the basis of a resurgence of the cyber-networks. One node was Malaysiakini, the country’s first online news portal, which Steven Gan and Premesh Chandran founded on the eve of the November 1999 general election and positioned as Malaysia’s first independent and professional online news service (Steele 2009, 107–108). Malaysiakini provided, in its own words, “only the news that matters.” Like the proverbial Internet start-up, Malaysiakini began with its founders’ very limited personal finances and some external funding support. But it had plenty of goodwill from an informal pro-Reformasi network that included a diasporic following. Within about six months of its commencement, Malaysiakini saw its average daily number of viewers reach 100,000 (five times its target for the first year). Its peak number of 319,000 viewers was recorded on August 8, 2000, the day of the verdict on Anwar Ibrahim’s trial on corruption charges (Tong 2004, 283). Hence, Malaysiakini had become an “E-zine news media” Web site that would

develop and present original content using traditional journalism approaches. Staff editors create some of the core content by assigning fresh news stories or analysis pieces to paid contributors with journalistic training and experience. E-zines may salt this core content with links to other media, streamed audio and video segments, discussion forums, blogs, and so on. (Beers 2006, 117)

By providing space for readers’ letters, popular comments, and guest columns, Malaysiakini became a hub with expanding links to subscribing readers, freeloading surfers, NGOs, political parties, and, so to speak, other refugees from the controlled mass media. The last named group intriguingly included some mainstream reporters with whom Malaysiakini discreetly maintained a symbiotic relationship: those mainstream reporters would sometimes share news materials with Malaysiakini reporters (when the latter were shut out of official events) or even supply Malaysiakini with copy they could not publish in their own newspapers (Steele 2009, 104). Over time, by adding a TV section loaded with video presentations, Malaysiakini became more multimedia. By adding free sections in Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil, it became multilingual, comparatively more national (if not fully Malaysian in the full scope of major languages) than the typical monolingual Malaysian newspaper, and closer to broadcast media having services in different languages. Since it declined to follow the controlled media’s proclivity for suppressing news on sensitive issues, dissenting views, and criticisms of the regime, Malaysiakini was periodically harassed by the authorities. In one infamous incident, when the editors refused to reveal the name of a letter-writer, the police raided Malaysiakini and confiscated all its computers. As so often happens, the petty and futile state harassment only heightened Malaysiakini‘s credibility and hardened its network’s opposition to the regime.

In an instructive ethnographic study of Malaysiakini, Janet Steele rejects “the popular belief that it is the Internet that challenges the Barisan Nasional’s stranglehold on power”; instead, she concludes that “the norms and values of independent journalism . . . made Malaysiakini such a threat to government authorities” (ibid., 108). But, surely, it was minimally the Internet and independent journalism at work: in the prevailing circumstances, a print or regular broadcast version of Malaysiakini was simply inconceivable. In general, it has been argued:

What makes cyberspace so different . . . from the rest of the capital-intensive, mass media such as television, newspapers, radio, or cinema is not which discourse is dominant—for market-popularity is dominant in all technologically based mass forums—but, rather, that cyberspace alone is very cheap to enter. (Whitaker 2004, 474)

Consequently, “this cheapness . . . renders the Internet, unlike any other mass medium, open to identity-resistance popular activity that is almost unfiltered” (ibid.). What made cyberspace attractive elsewhere made it attractive and empowering for the pioneering venture of Malaysiakini: relative “cheapness,”10) and insulation from censorship and suppression. More than that, as the controlled media steadily lost credibility it also lost its former status of an undisputed official voice. Faced with the state’s near-monopoly of the media, enforced in various ways, the task for alternative non-state media is

to somehow circumvent this media near-monopoly by creating an alternative “local media” and an alternative “official voice.” . . . Simply creating an alternative “public sphere” . . . and then trying to flood the state or the world with its contrary identity-resistance popularity via “community” owned newspapers and radio stations would not do. (ibid., 491)

In its design (as an online news service), by its practice (of journalistic autonomy), through its association (with anti-government blogging conferred by official harassment), and via its interactivity (with a believing and contributing audience), Malaysiakini was “pro-Opposition by default” (Brown 2004, 85) and more. It emerged as an unofficial “official voice” of the cyber-networks of anti-authoritarian resistance.

A second node was formed when Raja Petra Kamaruddin created Malaysia Today in 2004. RPK, as a devoted following affectionately later called Raja Petra, ran several series of political analyses and commentaries, namely No Holds Barred, The Corridors of Power, and The Khairy Chronicles. Tireless and prolific, RPK brought to Malaysia Today the tough attitude he had demonstrated in running the Free Anwar Campaign. Within the cyber-networks, RPK became a legendary blogger. Yet, he could be more accurately characterized as one of a “small subset of bloggers [who] assign themselves the role of news source, analyst, and interpreter . . . electronic pamphleteers, self-appointed editor/commentators who use their own highly selective filter to note, deconstruct, annotate, and re-spin news items produced elsewhere” (Beers 2006, 118). It was not reliance on “news items produced elsewhere” that made Malaysia Today the most popular blog in Malaysia. It was, rather, RPK’s relentless outpouring of exposés of alleged corruption and wrongdoings in high places. By Malaysian standards, RPK had no peer in uncovering plots and revealing conspiracies, naming names and detailing links, and providing documentation that, if genuine, could only have been leaked by deep throats, wherever these were placed. Not only did RPK constantly taunt power that was tainted by scandals, he obstinately dismissed threats of litigation and police action.

An internationally known campaigner for Anwar’s freedom who had been briefly detained under the Internal Security Act, RPK asked no one’s leave to criticize opposition politicians and leaders, including Anwar.11) Not for nothing had this half-Malay, half-Welsh scion of a minor branch of Malay royalty been motorcycle-loving in his youth. No other blogger had RPK’s attitude: he would bash or mock Malays and Muslims (even though he was one of them) and Chinese (even though his wife was one of them) and Indians or others (even if it was politically incorrect to do so). Yet, he showed something of a libertarian tolerance, albeit spiced with sarcasm and scolding, toward the acerbic, bigoted, or obscene among his followers. As RPK took on an iconic status within the cyber-networks, the blogrolls of other Web sites increasingly linked to Malaysia Today. Over time, Malaysia Today added news reports from domestic and international media, while several well-known bloggers and guest columnists, writing in English and Malay, linked their output to Malaysia Today.

Within two years of its existence, Malaysia Today had become the most popular blog, far and away the single most influential blog in the Malaysian cyber-networks of dissent. At heart, RPK’s rise to fame bears out the observation that “the irreverent personal voice that tends to thrive on the Internet is well suited to puncturing claims of authority designed to suppress debate” (ibid., 124). But no other dissenting Malaysian of the period—including Amir Muhammad in his sarcastic newspaper column, Sabri Zain through his biting online diary, or Zunar with his furious cartoons—had made such powerful use of such an incorrigibly irreverent attitude! There was a muckraking core to RPK, but there was more to Malaysia Today than muckraking. Although it was not a party organ or addressed to organized groups of people, Malaysia Today regularly put forth RPK’s challenges to his readers and PR supporters to determine and carry out what was to be done to eject the present regime. It has been suggested that “[i]f muckraking asks ‘what went wrong yesterday, and who is to blame?’ then future-focused journalism asks ‘what might go right tomorrow and who is showing the way?'” (ibid., 121). One could say of RPK and Malaysia Today that their “future-focused journalism,” sharpened by a highly personalized style of dissident discourse, intuitively spoke to the cyber-networks’ online anti-regime and pro-change yearnings otherwise burdened offline by impotent rage.

Most certainly, Malaysiakini and Malaysia Today do not—and cannot—represent the spectrum of views, opinions, and sentiments expressed in the large number of Web sites and blogs that were central to the dissident cyber-networks. But the foci of these two vastly popular sites went to the heart of the dissident discourses of the time: cleanse and reform the public institutions. To put it lightly, if one craved for news that was hidden from public view, one hooked onto Malaysiakini,12) but for the lowdown on dirt in high places, one turned to RPK. Above all, Malaysiakini and Malaysia Today illustrated the influential roles that two successful nodes performed in keeping the dissident community visible in cyberspace, and imagined to be intact, which was all the more crucial as offline political contestation favored the regime.

II Physical Coalitions

Suddenly the tsunami struck, and evidently a new appreciation of the power of the Internet dawned: “Journalists, commentators, and parliamentarians themselves credited—or blamed—the Internet. With five well-known bloggers elected to Parliament, the election of 2008 seemed to spell an unambiguous victory for online media” (Steele 2009, 91). What had happened to make PR’s cyber-networks so seemingly effective now? An important answer lies in their synergistic connection to another form of network—the physical coalition to realize dissent through ground-level mobilization, organization, and contestation.

In 2007, a critical year, three large-scale marches and protests took place in Kuala Lumpur, each the work of a new coalition of dissent and anti-regime protest (Khoo 2007). There was a 2,000-strong “Lawyers’ March” to the Palace of Justice, Putrajaya, on September 26. On November 10, there was a 40,000-strong BERSIH (Gabungan Pilihanraya Bersih dan Adil, or Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections) rally that proceeded to the Palace to deliver a petition to the King. Finally, a “Hindu” rally of about 30,000 protestors took place on November 25.

The Lawyers’ March was led by the Bar Council and supported by NGOs and opposition parties. The marchers called for the head of the then Chief Justice for his alleged complicity in the manipulation of senior judicial appointments, including his very own. Exasperated with the unabated suspicions of deep corruption within the judiciary, the protesting lawyers and social activists demanded an end to the debasement and subversion of a key institution of state. The BERSIH rally wound its way from different locations in Kuala Lumpur to the Istana Negara (National Palace) to hand a petition to the King. BERSIH and the participants of the rally demanded a cleansing of the electoral system to break the crippling shackles the opposition experienced in every election. The Hindu rally, called by the newly organized Hindu Rights Action Front (HINDRAF), drew its supporters predominantly from Indians (but not necessarily Hindus) who converged on Kuala Lumpur from different parts of the country. Their destination was the British High Commission, where the HINDRAF leaders had prepared to hand a petition to Queen Elizabeth II, ostensibly to appeal for the historical restitution of the rights of Indian indentured labor that the colonial state had imported into British Malaya. In effect, HINDRAF protested “Indian marginalization”13) and neglect under the present regime.

Each event of protest was organized around an ad hoc network of dissidence. For the lawyers, the Bar Council had traditionally been the hub of the legal profession. On the matter of the reform of the judiciary, successive executive committees of the Bar Council had rallied the profession, strongly supported by many NGOs and the opposition since the first judicial crisis of 1988. The BERSIH coalition was new in name and the specific demands it made. But the coalition’s main movers, opposition parties and established NGOs, had been pressing in vain for basic changes to the electoral system that would level the playing field for a long-disadvantaged opposition. Only HINDRAF was truly new. Its protest against conditions of Indian marginalization was not in itself startling: NGO activists, the Malaysian Socialist Party, academics, and even some BN politicians had raised, disputed, and organized around the issue, without agreement on how to frame or resolve it. There was, arguably, even less agreement on HINDRAF’s decision to pose the issue as a Hindu matter, but that became a non-issue with non-Hindu Indians and non-Indians who chose to support the HINDRAF rally.14) The HINDRAF demand for the restitution of socioeconomic grievances going back to colonial labor policies was novel for not adhering to the standard, dominant narratives of interethnic socioeconomic inequalities in Malaysia that set assumed Malay political power against Chinese economic power. The newness of HINDRAF lay in its eruption as a social movement, its strong interjection into the political process as almost an Indian Reformasi, and its rejection of the Malaysian Indian Congress as the accepted representative of the Indian community within BN.

The slogans of the Bar Council, BERSIH, and HINDRAF marches varied, and the phraseology of their protests differed. But their underlying messages had much in common: judicial reform, electoral reform, social reform. The marchers came from different backgrounds: mostly lawyers in the first march, mostly Malays in the second, and predominantly Indians in the third. Together, the three marches extended the boundaries of dissent beyond those of Reformasi itself. Now Reformasi experiences were relived. The regime responded to the BERSIH and HINDRAF rallies with police repression and violent assaults on peaceful mass protests. In turn, the popular resentment loosened the BN’s hold on the Malay vote that had been retrieved by Abdullah’s “de-Mahathirizing” administration, and on the Indian vote. No “Chinese” rally of any size was organized. But, ironically, the Chinese support that had saved Mahathir and UMNO from the Malay voters’ revolt in 1999 was fast fading, too. By 2007, UMNO had so brazenly expressed its disregard for non-Malay sensitivities—summed up by its leaders’ open boasts that ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) would be upheld, that the New Economic Policy would be retained, and that the Malay Agenda was timeless15)—that Chinese voters were ready to punish BN, especially by drubbing its Chinese-based parties that would not—or could not—curb UMNO’s excesses. From then on, the opposition and its dissident allies exploited further advances in ICT to produce more penetrative Internet-based audiovisual media and maintain more densely linked dissident cyber-networks to disseminate the messages and appeals of the opposition and extend its public reach.

As a ruling coalition of ethnic parties, dominating a severely gerrymandered electoral system, BN used to profit from an asynchronous pattern of ethnic opposition, whereby extensive Malay and non-Malay voter disaffection tended to emerge in different elections. Moments of Malay and Chinese electoral revolts converged only once, in 1969.16) Critically, they did not in 1990 or 1999, when anti-regime sentiment ran very high (Khoo 2003, 160). But by the beginning of 2008, BN’s electoral coalition had frayed as never before. As rumors swirled of an early general election, the all-important question was whether a new dissident coalition could form to do serious battle with the BN.

“At certain historical moments and under specific political, economic, and communicational circumstances,” it has been suggested, “a certain node attracts many links and becomes a hub, which in turn tends to attract more links” (Hau and Shiraishi 2009, 335). By that imagery of network formation, Anwar Ibrahim, an isolated node upon his release from prison in late 2004, returned to the political scene at the 2007–08 juncture, as a hub “connecting communities of links (i.e., people of sometimes different political persuasions) across time and space, in ways that create the potential for people within the network (who [might] not necessarily know each other) to link up with each other” (ibid.). Several factors made Anwar the ideal hub of spreading networks of opposition. He had spent much of his political career leading networks and coalitions of dissent—as a student leader during the Baling protests of 1974, as president of Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia coordinating the anti-Societies Act movement of 1981, and as the icon of Reformasi in 1999 (Khoo 2003, 86–96). In 2008, he was strategically placed to act as the fulcrum about which would turn the opposition parties, the BERSIH coalition, HINDRAF, and the cyber-networks. It was obvious to partisans and observers alike then that only a new second coalition of opposition parties might take advantage of BN’s fraying coalition. Not only did Anwar resume formal politics, but in doing so he retrieved for the imagined community of dissent the combative spirit and purpose of Reformasi and supplied the link that BA missed in 1999 precisely because he was in prison. Finally, if ever different tendencies and programs went in search of an ideological hub, those associated with PAS, DAP, PKR, and HINDRAF’s political offshoot that called itself Makkal Sakhti (People’s Power) found one in Anwar, who now proffered a more inclusive “New Malaysian Agenda” of institutional reform, multiculturalism, and social justice for all.

III Missing Links

In the run-up to the 12th general election, the cyber-networks and the physical coalitions of dissent campaigned with the full array of tools available in cyberspace—mobile phones, e-mail, blogs, Web sites—and the interventions of an enlarging corps of Web site managers, online professional journalists, bloggers, netizens, commentators, and, simply, mobile-phone owners who were simultaneously angry voters. Between them, these networks and coalitions deployed text messages, e-mail lists, Internet postings, and video clips to overcome the controlled media’s reflexive shutout of the opposition. People who had not previously imagined themselves to be dissidents sent appeals for funding, relayed notices of opposition events, forwarded campaign materials, and transmitted calls for volunteer workers and polling observers. Old-school networks were activated and diasporic contacts established through cyberspace. The cyber-networks and physical coalitions converged. At times the meetings were tangential; they merely linked people on the margins of politics to activists they knew personally. For most people, the convergences were brief, as when they attended the opposition’s election rallies and events during the campaign period. Nor was it unusual for contacts to remain mostly within cyberspace: many discreet supporters of the opposition transferred campaign contributions via their ATMs to the special bank accounts of specific candidates.

The electoral outcome was startling for a political system used to finding that BN’s structural advantages, institutional powers, and incomparably greater resources would somehow end high opposition aspirations at the close of a short but relentless campaigning period. As it turned out, not even Malaysiakini‘s redoubtable Steven Gan expected anything close to the final results. Overnight, PKR stopped being the one-seat party that UMNO had threatened to send into oblivion after the 2004 general election. Instead, PKR added 30 more to the sole seat held by its official leader, Wan Azizah, and held the highest number of seats within PR. Nor was PAS beleaguered any longer with a precarious one-seat majority in Kelantan (which PAS had ruled since 1990). Not only did PAS have 38 of the 45 seats in Kelantan, but now the party ruled Kedah for the first time, led the PR government in Perak (despite the DAP’s larger representation in the state), and formed part of the Selangor government. For the first time, too, DAP (which had contested elections since the mid-1960s) took power in Penang by completely defeating its rivals for the non-Malay votes, namely, the Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (which had ruled or led the government in Penang since 1969) and the Malaysian Chinese Association. With PKR having 31 seats in Parliament to DAP’s 28 and PAS’s 23, it was even possible to imagine, further, that a second coalition was in the making that could cooperate on less inequitable power-sharing terms.

As such, it would be pleasant to end this account on a euphoric note reminiscent of the night of the tsunami! After all, it took a decade of cyber-activism and coalition building to produce and sustain the cyber-networks and the physical coalitions that reaffirmed on March 8, 2008 that “the potentials of the Net are realized in articulation with other spaces and flows—the flow of money, goods, and bodies, for example—rather than in a struggle that constructs itself solely through some cyberreality” (Froehling 1997, 304). The realities of political contestation and state power, however, demand that dissent must go beyond imagining and even realizing. Dissent lasts and can be defended to the extent that it is socially and deeply rooted, which requires other networks, too.

Over more than five decades of uninterrupted rule, BN, and especially UMNO, has used state power, resources, and channels to penetrate all strata and areas of society, including all forms of official and semi-official institutions, voluntary societies, business associations, youth clubs, community bodies, etc.17) The breadth and depth of BN’s presence and influence in society has been such that UMNO leaders used to say, complacently, that they might not draw large crowds at election campaign rallies but their supporters would deliver at the ballot boxes.

By comparison, it might be summarily noted, PR’s parties generally lack deep or extensive networks that bind them to stable structures in physical communities throughout the country. Among them, PAS has had the strongest and most disciplined party structures and membership. More than half a century of political organization and contestation and about 40 years of experience in state government have given PAS well-developed ties to rural communities, religious schools and related institutions, associations of ulama, Islamic NGOs, and university student groups. Most of PAS’s networks used to be localized, in Kelantan and Terengganu notably, but in the past two decades they have spread to other states and some of the larger urban centers. In contrast, DAP has always been a cadre party dependent on mass support of a largely unaffiliated kind.18) Moreover, until the failed experiments with Gagasan Rakyat in 1990 and BA in 1999, not even the staunchest DAP supporters expected the party to take power anywhere. Being a party of protest, therefore, DAP has had a pendulum pattern of fortunes—rising with torrents of dissident Chinese voter sentiment at some elections, and slumping when the sentiments turned pro-regime at other elections. Without mass card-carrying members, and finding that its links to the associations, guilds, and societies of the Chinese communities, once the fixed repositories of dissent, have weakened, DAP would have to construct new and extensive networks if it is to remain a serious contender for power. Meanwhile, PKR has had too little time to organize its party structures. For certain campaigns in the past, PKR had to rely on PAS for organizational and other forms of assistance. Anwar’s six-year absence and the constant state repression of the PKR leadership left the party without much time to organize itself on a nationwide basis.

From Reformasi to the tsunami, PR resorted to mass protests to reach the populace. It has had considerable success with that strategy. Yet, if PR’s strategic goal is to liberalize the political system so that regime change becomes possible on the basis of a two-coalition system, PR suffers from the lack of a third type of network that maintains stable links between party structures and social bodies, including trade unions, community organizations, and civic associations. Missing those links up to the tsunami, PR depended overly on its cyber-networks and physical coalitions. That dependence contained a weakness exposed between 2009 and 2010. For example, detentions and harassments split HINDRAF’s leaders and Makkal Sakhti into pro-BN and anti-regime components, with the latter not even clearly pro-PR any more. Then the defections of one DAP and two PKR elected representatives—accompanied by BN’s use of royal, bureaucratic, police, and judicial interventions—toppled the PR government in the state of Perak. Additional (mostly PKR) defections at parliamentary and state levels in 2010 threatened to undo PR’s 2008 achievement, and to recover for BN a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

It has been observed that a network “does not imply any uniformity of ideas or consistency, let alone equal intensity, in the level of political (or even personal) commitment,” but it can create links with “minimum motive[s]—not necessarily ideational, but personal, professional, and even financial” (Hau and Shiraishi 2009, 336). If so, PR’s overall pre-tsunami network might have relied on links created out of “minimum motives.” The motive of the dissident voters was to teach BN a lesson. That of the opposition parties, especially PKR, was to contest, even with candidates they hastily or injudiciously picked—because there was no one else to stand in an election not many thought they could win. But as the defections showed, links with minimum motives, unexpectedly effective in one circumstance, can be predictably severed in another. More attempts to break links and dismantle networks were to come. Just before the Sarawak state election of April 16, 2011, cyber-attacks crippled Malaysiakini in what was surely a dress rehearsal in cyber-war for the next general election.19) At about the same time, the state-controlled television broadcast an interview with the exiled RPK that some said had been heavily “doctored” to show RPK’s “turnover” to BN’s side (Teoh 2011). And, since June 2008, the hub that is Anwar has been ruthlessly weighed down by renewed prosecution for sodomy.

For all that, the regime remains uneasy. The coalition of PR is intact despite many provocations to split the parties and their bases of support along antagonistic ethnic and religious lines. The dissent unleashed by Reformasi and renewed in the tsunami has not abated, and now new possibilities in the dissident use of social media abound. In the end, any further progression toward the realization of dissent might not depend so much on the permanence of particular nodes and hubs and networks, but on their persistence and reinventions.

Accepted: January 21, 2016


Entries for non-western names are cited and arranged alphabetically according to surnames or first names, without the use of commas, except where the first name is an honorific, or where the name follows western convention in the original source.

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1) The use of the term, exhilarating for some, recalled the utter shock the terrible tsunami of December 26, 2004 held for a nation that had hitherto been spared natural disasters of that kind or scale. For the allusion to a perfect storm, see Steven Gan, Editorial, Malaysiakini, March 9, 2010, accessed March 10, 2010.

2) “Internet Served a Painful Lesson,” New Straits Times, March 26, 2008.

3) It was self-serving to the extent that it diverted attention from the non-technological causes of BN’s losses. Disgruntled UMNO figures blamed Abdullah’s poor leadership and forced his resignation as prime minister and UMNO president a year later.

4) “Internet Served a Painful Lesson,” New Straits Times, March 26, 2008.

5) The leader of the UMNO New Media Unit said he had trained “around 1,800 members in social media use since being put in charge in 2010” (quoted in Aw 2012).

6) Tan (2010, 291–296) gives a detailed list of pro-Reformasi Web sites.

7) “. . . [T]he distinction of real and imagined or virtual community is not a useful one, and that an anthropological approach is well suited to investigate the continuum of communities, identities, and networks that exist—from the most cohesive to the most diffuse—regardless of the ways in which community members interact” (Wilson and Peterson 2002, 462).

8) In one of those twists that give the lie to the regime’s presumed ability to control the popular imagination at will, this “Malay heartland” was revolted rather than persuaded by the media’s incessant and lurid depictions of Anwar’s supposed crimes.

9) Just as Gagasan Rakyat expired after the 1990 election, although DAP performed well then whereas Semangat 46 failed to win sufficient Malay support.

10) That Malaysiakini began with very limited financial resources makes this point the more persuasive. Yet, one should not exaggerate the point of cheap entry—at any rate, cheaply sustainable presence—because the commercial threat Malaysiakini faced was, arguably, not less than the obvious political one (Brown 2005, 47).

11) At the Dialog dengan Persatuan-persatuan (Dialogue with Societies), Sunway Hotel, Penang, June 4, 2006, a member of the audience asked Anwar for his response to RPK’s complaint that Anwar had been recently quiet on critical issues. Anwar replied, “Petra supported me via the Free Anwar Campaign, then Malaysia Today. Now he makes this bit of criticism. Give him some credit. He has a right to disagree. He represents the kind of media (policy) we should have.” This statement is based on the author’s notes from the Dialog.

12) Thus did Malaysiakini successfully compete with the international media for reporting what was not reported by the domestic media.

13) Since not just HINDRAF leaders but many NGO activists and politicians use “Indian marginalization” to describe the “Indian condition,” this phrase is maintained here although its meanings are not entirely clear.

14) Jeyakumar Devaraj (2007) made a notable case for urging class solidarity with the “marginalized” while criticizing an ethnic appeal to Indians. For a different view of the political significance of HINDRAF, see Khoo (2007).

15) Officially replaced by a National Development Policy in 1991, the NEP, originally scheduled to end in 1990, was never terminated in practice. But with a difficult recovery from the 1997–98 financial and economic crises, Malay political and business elites wanted to keep, and even extend, NEP’s “restructuring” that discriminated against non-Malays. As for a Malay Agenda, no one really knew what it meant beyond a chauvinistic assertion of the special position of Malays in the country.

16) On the whole, Indian voters had been loyal to BN despite the presence of many outstanding Indian oppositionists in the nation’s electoral history; by the beginning of the twenty-first century, BN had come to take Indian support for granted.

17) Many more networks operate at the same time, but there is no space to discuss others, including, say, networks of non-representative institutions of power, such as the nine Malay rulers, the uniformed forces, and the senior ranks of the bureaucracies, with all of whom the regime has long been intimately associated.

18) DAP began as a Peninsular Malaysian offshoot of the People’s Action Party (PAP) of Singapore. Yet, on this issue, the two parties could not be more different today. The PAP is, arguably, more rooted in Singaporean society than, say, UMNO in Malay society.

19) See “Malaysiakini Down, Hit by Cyber Attacks,” Malaysiakini, April 12, 2011,, accessed April 13, 2011.


Vol. 4, No. 3, CHIA

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 3

Inclusive Spirituality: The Bodhisattva Kuan-yin as Moral Exemplar and Self-Cultivation in a Malaysian Dharma House

Arthur C. K. Chia*

*谢志健, Division of Sociology, Nanyang Technological University, 50 Nanyang Avenue, Singapore 639798

e-mail: ckchia[at]

Based on an ethnographic study of a lay Buddhist organization in contemporary Malaysia called the Kuan-yin Contemplative Order (KYCO), this paper looks into the inclusive spiritualism KYCO engenders by situating the organization and the religious universalism from which it emerges in the cultural and historical context of “redemptive societies”—a religious tradition that was established during the late imperial era of China and exploded during the early twentieth century into the cities and spread to Southeast Asia. While the ongoing racial politics and simmering religious tensions in Malaysia limit what followers of KYCO can realistically hope to achieve in terms of realizing a more peaceful and equitable existence, these perennial issues and challenges do not stop them from pursuing the ideals of the Bodhisattva—one who out of compassion delays her/his own salvation until all others have been saved from suffering.

Keywords: self-cultivation, morality, inclusive spiritualism, redemptive societies, Malaysia


I readily agreed to join in the Vesak1) day procession that was to be held on a weekend evening of May 2008. No prior registration was required nor forms to be filled. I just needed to show up at the Maha Vihara Buddhist temple in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, joining my friends from the Kuan-yin Contemplative Order (KYCO)—a lay Buddhist organization. They stood out in their crisp all-white attire, looking fresh and clean. There were 11 of them from KYCO that evening. Kiat,2) one of the most active members of KYCO and the coordinator for this outing, was happy to see me there and delighted that I had worn the white KYCO polo shirt as well. Someone from the group pointed at my dark blue cap and said with good humor, “You look like you are from UMNO.” It was a stark reminder of the recent watershed general election of March 2008, which had seen the biggest loss for the ruling Malay party—UMNO—in its history (although the party still maintained a precarious majority).3) I was perturbed by that insinuation, because UMNO is not only the ruling party of the country but also an exclusively and dominantly ethnic Malay political party, and the comment reminded me uncomfortably of my place as an outsider.

The atmosphere was festive as we marched along the 10 km route that weaved through the city of Kuala Lumpur. However, the mood in my group was subdued and somber, in contrast to the joyous singing and easy camaraderie amongst other marchers. Kiat proposed that we “contemplate on the sufferings of the world” and “dedicate merit generated from the march to those who are suffering.” Although the march was not physically arduous and I secretly found it to be enjoyable, Kiat invoked the effort as a spiritual struggle of sorts, dedicating it to all beings—humans and non-humans in this world as well as others.

Going home that night, my mind was occupied by the image of these Chinese middle-class English-speaking devotees from KYCO dressed in white marching solemnly, in contrast to the celebratory atmosphere of the Vesak day procession. They stood out in their all-white outfit as a marker of purity and virtue, and demonstrated visually the relationship between the body’s corporeality and morality.4) Kiat’s reference to suffering seemed to set things in a certain perspective—suffering is central to Buddhism, where the world is depicted as suffering and a solution is sought to the end of suffering5)—but his call to contemplate on the world’s sufferings invoked moral empathy, prompting “something that depends on intellectual and practical disciplines” (Asad 1993, 62).

I am moved by my friends’ actions in which they seek to dedicate themselves to help all beings. By doing so they manifest not only Buddhist compassion but, more important, a spirit of inclusiveness and universalism. Their actions are grounded in aspirations not necessarily realized in the (protective) powers acquired through meditation and disciplinary practices that normally accrue to magical monks and/or meditation masters in Thai, Laotian, or Burmese Buddhism (Houtman 1997; Cook 2010; McDaniel 2011). Instead, KYCO followers aspire toward moral transformation through self-cultivation practices where spiritual accomplishment and morality are demonstrated by the exemplary life and conduct of charismatic lay masters and gifted adepts.

This paper seeks to describe some of these moral aspirations and spiritual experiences, examining the self-cultivation practices and inclusive spiritualism that give rise to them by situating KYCO and the religious universalism from which it emerges in the cultural and historical context of “redemptive societies”—a religious tradition that was established in the late imperial era of China and exploded during the early twentieth century into the cities and spread to Southeast Asia.

Kuan-yin Contemplative Order: Inclusive Spiritualism

The arguments in this paper emerge from fieldwork conducted from 2008 to 2009 at KYCO during which I observed firsthand the activities that KYCO followers carry out in order to fulfill or realize the Bodhisattva Vow6) they have undertaken. I also analyzed KYCO newsletters and magazines containing personal essays, stories, and poems written by followers. The people whom I befriended at KYCO were happy to assist and facilitate my study. They were welcoming of my presence because they perceived it as the work of the divine that had brought me to them, and which they hoped would ultimately lead me to the discovery and achievement of my own goals, spiritually speaking.

In the heartlands of Petaling Jaya—or “PJ” as locals affectionately call it—the suburban residential city southwest of Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, people gather regularly at KYCO, located in a nondescript twin double-story link-house, to pray, chant sutras, sing hymns, and listen to Dharma lectures. The KYCO membership consists mainly of urban middle-class ethnic Chinese who are accountants, bankers, managers, lecturers, doctors, computer executives, secretaries, and businessmen as well as retirees and housewives. On festival days, when attendance is highest, thousands of people might pass through the house. Devotees wearing their all-white ensemble descend upon the quiet neighborhood in their Toyota, Honda, Proton, and the occasional Mercedes-Benz sedans. Most people come for the blessings, some for the healing—both spiritual and physical—that are offered by the Bodhisattva Kuan-yin. Many are devout followers, like my friend Kiat, who goes to renew his spiritual and moral vows as well as make new ones.

KYCO was inspired and founded in 1979 by Tony Wong Kuan Ming to fulfill a personal pledge: it was a commitment to “save the world,” but the salvational or redemptive imperatives would become clearer to Tony only in later years. Born in 1940 Kuala Lumpur into a Chinese Catholic household, Tony was the son of a millionaire. He led a self-professed privileged life and was cared for as a boy by ah-mahs (bonded servants) in his household. He received a formative English-based education at Christian missionary schools in Kuala Lumpur. In the late 1970s Tony’s brother Nelson was diagnosed with cancer, and the news devastated his family emotionally. Tony was affected particularly badly, and during his brother’s sickness he (Tony) was “visited” by various Chinese deities who urged him to pray to the Bodhisattva Kuan-yin and start up a congregation of Kuan-yin followers and devotees.

In 1979, Tony began gathering a few friends and colleagues to venerate Kuan-yin and learn about Buddhism at his office. Over time, he acquired a reputation as a healer and teacher of the Buddhist Dharma. Later on, with a sizeable following, he was transformed into Master Tony Wong or “Sifu”—a respectful Cantonese7) term that people use to address him. He is now known mainly as a teacher who delivers the Buddhist Dharma in English, teaching in a way that is considered by his followers to be accessible and useful for the ordinary person. He addresses problems that relate to family, work, and personal well-being, casting and reframing them under the light of Buddhist compassion and moral rhetoric.

The charismatic persona of leadership is not unique to contemporary religious or spiritual organizations; for instance, the successes of Sai Baba’s following, New Age religions, and Christian mega-churches have always hinged upon the skill and popularity of their leaders. The leadership of Sifu or Master Tony Wong as a male authority figure is a central feature of KYCO. Charismatic leadership, alongside the fostering of a family-like atmosphere that is conducive to experiences of emotional security, spiritual effervescence, and moral rhetoric contribute to the appeal of KYCO for many of its followers.

KYCO’s leadership structure may be described as patriarchal. Sifu Tony Wong as the founder-leader assumes the most authoritative role along with “lay clergy”: an inner circle of disciples composed of men and women who are appointed to take charge of ritual duties as well as manage the day-to-day operations of the organization. Entry into this inner core group is coveted by many KYCO followers, including my friend Kiat, but it is decided solely by Sifu, who assesses potential disciples based on their spiritual potential and level of commitment to KYCO. Leadership revolves around Sifu and two of his most senior male disciples, who are exceptional hands-on managers. This centralized patriarchal style of leadership has remained strong over the years. Because of its highly syncretic and non-sectarian pronouncement, KYCO does not subject itself directly to monastic authority; it develops and teaches its own Dharma. Monastic authority serves as a symbolic purpose for KYCO; hence, its relationship with Buddhist organizations and temples can be regarded as competitive rather than hierarchical or complementary.

Through his followers, Sifu has cultivated many close relationships with Tibetan monks and lamas, Sai Baba devotees, spiritual adepts, and local nonsectarian humanitarian figures. Sifu is a key proponent of the Vajrayana Buddhist Council of Malaysia, which was formed in 2000 to represent the Vajrayana Buddhist community and to work with other Buddhist groups in Malaysia. This Vajrayana Buddhist umbrella organization comprises KYCO as well as other Tibetan-based Buddhist organizations, branches, and temples in Malaysia.

The network of affiliations exemplifies the nonsectarian, eclectic, and communal ethos of KYCO. More important, the network is constructed along the lines of affective relationship and personalized interaction. For Sifu and his followers, this relationship is maintained by the regularity of the Dharma sessions and activities at KYCO.

KYCO’s membership number is modest, but the organization can draw upon tremendous support from followers and donors during fund-raising and other important festive as well as philanthropic events. In the context of the Petaling Jaya area, with an urban population of over 450,000, and the Kuala Lumpur metropolitan population of 1.5 million, the establishment and steady growth of urban middle-class spiritual organizations such as KYCO and the socioeconomic wealth and resources they represent are significant developments.

KYCO followers are active supporters of Tibetan Buddhist clergies on the Dharma-dispensing-cum-fund-raising world circuit. In the global scheme of things, they are tapped into the local chapter of the international Sai Baba network; they also engage in local charities and organize spiritual tours to Sai Baba’s headquarters in Puttaparthi, India, as well as Buddhist and Taoist temples in China and Taiwan. Through these activities, they participate in a transnational flow of funds, personnel, activities, and events that encompasses and expands self-cultivation as a spiritual field that dovetails with the growth of a self-help milieu promulgated by a burgeoning global consumer market for self-cultivation or self-help literature, media programs, workshops, retreats, and wellness centers promising to heal, restore, and rejuvenate the soul and to make the world a better place.

KYCO’s membership expanded gradually and spiked during the 1990s, an era when the Sixth Malaysia Plan was rolled out by then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The 1991 plan outlined a rapid economic program that envisioned the transformation of Malaysia into a “fully developed country” by the year 2020. The plan also outlined cultural goals to be achieved alongside economic growth. Primary among those were the making of a “liberal and tolerant society in which Malaysians of all colors and creeds would be free to practice and profess their customs, cultures and religious beliefs” (Mahathir 1991) and the vision of a “united Malaysian nation with a sense of common and shared destiny” (ibid.) that upended the postcolonial ideology asserting Malay ethnicity as the national identity. It was a powerful and compelling motion of unity and inclusiveness that encouraged the nascent development of nondenominational philanthropic spiritual movements in Malaysia: during this time, the Taiwan-based humanitarian-work-oriented Tzu Chi organization expanded through the outreach efforts of a Taiwanese businessman and his wife based in Melaka (Huang 2009, 247–266); Yiguandao—a Chinese spiritual sect banned in Singapore—put down roots in Malaysia and gained a nationwide following (Soo 1998); the Sai Baba movement grew rapidly (Kent 2005); and charity organizations such as the Pure Life Society, led by spiritually inspired local figures such as Mother Mangalam, captured the imagination and wide support of Malaysians regardless of their race, language, or religion. Together, these entities constitute what could be considered a grassroots spiritual movement that transcends ethnic and religious boundaries with an emphasis on social action and spiritual salvation, charity, and self-cultivation.

Many of their philanthropic and spiritual pursuits are aimed at social as well as personal enrichment. Their membership comprises predominantly well-educated middle-class, middle-aged professionals and businessmen who fraternize in these congregations to network and seek outlets for their shared spiritual and emotional needs. The same people can often be found in different spiritual and philanthropic organizations.

KYCO is part of this grassroots religious movement. Tapped into a network of social as well as business relations, it contributes to the discourse and practice of “civility” and “participation” by advocating Buddhist compassion and adopting an inclusive spiritualism that does not require people to give up their own religions or beliefs or philanthropy. It transgresses boundaries of race, language, religion as well as binaries of good and evil, right and wrong—not by proclaiming ultimate truths but by promulgating a quasi-religious quality of “civility” in public association and interaction that generates peace and respect for others. The political anthropologist Robert Hefner proposes that civility, when added to the “structural reality of civic association,” could bring about the development of a “civil society” (Hefner 2001, 10–11). Weaving individual spiritual and social goals that reinforce and intertwine with each other often blurs the distinction between the needs of the individual versus community, and self versus others. Much of this blurring is embodied in the personal convictions and charisma of Sifu Tony Wong and some of his closest disciples, whose efforts are aimed at making KYCO a meaningful presence in the lives of its followers.

KYCO devotees and followers value the personal and communal relations as well as the moral and spiritual upliftment the organization provides. Sifu Tony Wong is often cited as the primary reason why they support KYCO: they appreciate his teachings, which focus on the “essentials” of Buddhist teachings and have general applicability in cultivating personal wellness as well as the collective well-being of society. In the context of Malaysia’s difficult racial and religious politics, KYCO’s inclusive message of spirituality and morality is poignant yet powerful. Some scholars have come to the conclusion that adherence to the religious or spiritual moral principles of compassion, kindness, empathy, and even philanthropic work does not have a significant impact on civil society. Contrary to these opinions, KYCO demonstrates how personal efficacy is generated through practices and discourses that become political practices however apolitical or anti-political they may appear or claim to be. I argue that KYCO’s spiritually informed notion of inclusiveness continues to be relevant for many Malaysians, with power being drawn not from political institutions but through self-cultivation practices whose moral purpose is to sustain, promote, and uplift life.

Redemptive Societies, Self-Cultivation and Kuan-yin Veneration

The moral rhetoric of self-cultivation practices is reproduced in the notion of Bodhisattvas or Buddhist saints who vow to work for the good of all beings by renouncing their own enlightenment or salvation until all have been saved. Bodhisattvas epitomize the highest ethical standards in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition because “they dedicate themselves in all their lifetimes to rescuing living beings from various kinds of suffering” (Mrozik 2004, 176).

The idea that it is possible and desirable to attain or acquire certain qualities and transform oneself into a better person or a more superior form of being through self-cultivation has been present in Chinese religious, philosophical, and medical traditions. Self-cultivation, generally understood to be a set of mental and physical routines, is undertaken as an individual practice or in groups. Varieties of self-cultivation are found in Buddhist, Taoist, as well as Confucian traditions; in traditional Chinese medical teachings; and in the bio-spiritual practice of qigong and Chinese martial arts. All these different traditions and practices of self-cultivation share the common idea that humans can attain a stage of perfection (in whatever ways the traditions dictate or determine what that perfection is) through physical and mental disciplines (Palmer and Liu 2012; Penny 2012).

Self-cultivation popularized through Chinese redemptive societies during the turbulent Chinese Republican era of the early twentieth century achieved a particular social and political salience in China as well as among Chinese communities in Taiwan and Southeast Asia. The term “redemptive societies” was coined by Prasenjit Duara in his study of Manchukuo—the Japanese state established in the Chinese northeast (Manchuria) between 1932 and 1945 (Duara 2003). Later scholars have used the term to describe and identify groups such as Falun Gong (Ownby 2008) and Dejiao (Formoso 2010). Redemptive societies that emerged out of the troubled times at the turn of the twentieth century in China “urged the extinguishing of worldly desires and engagement in moral action” (ibid., 103), retaining sectarian traditions and scriptures as well as popular practices such as divination, spirit writing, and so on. These spiritual and historical traditions provided ideas and notions of sovereignty for the project of nation making and modernization in Manchukuo.

Redemptive cults such as Dao De-hui (Morality Society), Daoyuan (Society of the Way), Zailijiao (The Teaching of the Abiding Principle), Shijie Zongjiao Datong-hui (Society for the Great Unity of World Religions), and Yiguandao (Way of Pervading Unity) claimed a following of 7 million to 30 million people in China from the 1930s to the 1940s (ibid.). These organizations taught and put into practice a universalizing and syncretic form of Chinese Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. Members of contemporary redemptive societies were usually drawn from the cities and urban townships. They included the local gentry and officials who came together to partake in philanthropic activities such as disaster relief, poverty alleviation, education, the teaching of virtues including charity and filial piety, as well as self-cultivation.

Adapting to the times by incorporating major religious traditions and teachings, redemptive societies focused on the idioms of self-cultivation, knowledge, and the rhetoric of “saving the world” from physical destruction and moral impairment. Moral and spiritual goals as well as processes were pitted against hedonistic materialism, and communal as well as community needs were put before self-interest. Popular concerns about moral progress and the rhetoric of universal redemption came to be associated with “civilizational ideals and practices” of wenming8) (文明, Chinese civilization) and jiaohua9) (教化, moral transformation) (Duara 2003, 105–106) with the explicit aim of teaching the truths of “heaven” and the “way” to transform selves and society, and to “urge towards a transcendent universalism” (ibid.) or restore the “glory of ancient civilization” (Formoso 2010).

Thus, redemptive societies not only embodied virtues of an older moral order, they were also engaged in the reconstruction of communities and society along utopian visions of the future. Self-cultivation, then, would lead to the achievement of civilized nobility or wen (文). The cultivation of a strong inner spirit, neisheng (内聖), that matched the outer/worldly dimension of waiwang10) (外王) constituted a fundamental practice of redemptive societies (Duara 2003, 103–104). Therefore, self-cultivation practices included “outer” or outward expressions of kindness such as the performing of charity or charitable deeds as well as “inner” practices of moral and spiritual introspection, maintaining abstinences, and the observation of a moral code or behavior and bodily comportment. For the political aspirants and community leaders among members of redemptive societies, they advocated the development of a strong inner spiritual dimension through “moral religious cultivation of the individual spirit and body” (ibid., 105) to match an outer dimension of engaging in worldly affairs through philanthropic enterprises and public works. Thus, self-cultivation prescribes for the elites as well as the politically ambitious a way of connecting the inner state—hopes, aspirations, and passions that constitute a sense of self—with outer social and political action.

Describing the redemptive societies project as a “civilizing process,” Duara highlights its mission to enlighten or teach and transform social morality through virtuous rule and self-cultivation. Redemptive societies such as the Morality Society, Yiguandao, and Red Swastika were lay religious congregations that espoused an ideology of universal salvation promoting a syncretism of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, which gained popularity amongst Confucian gentry and the Buddhist as well as Taoist laity during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and in the twentieth century came to encompass and adapt world religions, including Islam and Christianity (ibid., 103–104). They sought to distill “truths” from these traditions and to synthesize religious as well as moral visions with a scientific view of the world. They adopted a social organization along the lines of a Christian model of “religion,” with “a church hierarchy, Sunday prayers, missions, journals, and even, in some cases baptism” (Goossaert and Palmer 2011, 95). Claiming to represent “religious modernity in its universal dimension” (ibid.), redemptive societies were highly effective in mobilizing members into large organizations of adepts who engaged in a variety of self-cultivation and devotional practices as well as in performing emergency relief work.

Redemptive societies had national reach, with provincial and municipal organizations registered under the post-imperial Chinese state as philanthropic public associations. They were characterized by a distinct mode of authority and a leadership system that emphasized an intimate master-disciple relationship, a fraternity of brotherhood constituted by a closed group of adepts, and a network of followers and practitioners who operated within a broad moralistic discourse (Goossaert 2008, 25–26).

KYCO’s emergence during the 1980s coincided with a flourishing of redemptive societies led by Dejiao (Formoso 2010) and Yiguandao (Soo 1998) in Malaysia, when branches, prayer halls, and family shrines were set up on the advice and request of relatives, friends, and colleagues who were sect members from Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. However, the newly formed sects faced tremendous pressure and consternation from religious bodies such as the Malaysian Buddhist Association and the local Chinese press, who accused and depicted sect members as “heretics,” “foreign swindlers,” “deviant,” “evil,” and “anti-social.” Yiguandao was banned in Taiwan until 1987 and is still considered to be illegal in China due to its “alleged close ties with the Japanese puppet government at Manchukuo during the Sino-Japanese war, and partly due to the hostile views held towards it by leaders of the more orthodox Buddhist groups” (Lim 2011, 7). In July 1981 Singapore expelled and blacklisted 12 Taiwanese Yiguandao members for spreading heretic teachings (Soo 1998, 155), but this only further strengthened the group’s resolve:

One direct consequence of this early negative experience was the decision by Taiwan-based leadership to establish a chemical factory in Singapore as a front for missionary activities and as a viable source of funds for the expansion of the group in Singapore and the region. In 1981, the group formally registered in Singapore as the Hua Yuan Hui, essentially identifying itself publicly as a moral uplifting society and charitable organization, and not as Yiguandao and an explicitly religious organization. In fact, the name of Hua Yuan Hui in Singapore suggested both an orientation towards Chinese traditional culture that might appeal to the Chinese population in the country, as well as to fit into the state’s effort to cultivate moral citizens through the re-acquaintance of the “traditional culture” of one’s ethnicity. (Lim 2011, 8)

The Malaysian Chinese media picked up on the negative public perception resulting from Singapore’s expulsion of the 12 Taiwanese Yiguandao members and cast a similar lens onto the situation in Malaysia. It highlighted a public quarrel between individuals that implicated sect teachings and practices suggesting moral impropriety. With significant encouragement from the Chinese press, a grassroots vigilante group to combat “hereticism” was formed by one of the antagonists in the quarrel, and it attracted a handful of supporters. Finally, in 1993, the Malaysian Ministry of Home Affairs stepped in to issue a warning against the “illegal preaching” and “propagation of heretical teaching” that caused “disunity among Chinese communities” while reiterating the government’s policy of religious freedom and its guarantee under the Malaysian Constitution (Soo 1998, 165).

Not unlike their innovative redemptive society counterparts, serious KYCO followers cast themselves as spiritual cultivators, take the Bodhisattva Vow, and adopt a gentle, caring, humble, and faithful disposition. They learn to accept Sifu’s teachings with humility and respect, practice self-cultivation, and strive toward a moral life, convinced that moral discipline and self-cultivation are an efficacious way to mediate the consequences of karma as a form of “retribution from past actions” or “inescapable Fate” (Van der Veer 1989, 458).

Here, KYCO devotees share with their religious counterparts in Buddhism and Taoism a basic adherence to the following tenets. First, the universe is believed to comprise benevolent (as well as malevolent) spirits and divine entities. Second, historical religious figures such as the Buddha, Jesus Christ, etc., as well as contemporary ones such as Sathya Sai Baba (1926–2011)—the Hindu spiritual founder-leader of the international Sai Baba movement—are regarded as compelling evidence of the divine presence in the human world. These figures are believed to be virtuous, efficacious, and responsive. Third, practical, moral, and spiritual goals are intertwined, and these goals are believed to be achieved or achievable through individual as well as collective effort rather than through belief or faith alone. Through these efforts to be awakened and thus to be free from suffering, devotees aspire toward positive changes in their lives and within themselves. They invest their time and energy in self-cultivation practices such as contemplation, praying, chanting, and charity that fulfill personal aspirations; reinforce fortitude; give meaning; emphasize feelings and cathartic sensations; and embody caring and giving as well as belonging and laboring. These self-cultivation practices enact feelings of doing right and good, which may be discerned and understood as moral or ethical practices (Zigon 2013).

The character and ethos of redemptive societies—particularly lay voluntary organizations—the emphasis on moral transformation, and the practice of self-cultivation have been built on the foundation of Kuan-yin veneration, which could perhaps be described as “personal fulfillment” for devotees (Lee and Ackerman 1997, 68). Kuan-yin is a powerful symbol of compassion and efficacy: devotees believe that Kuan-yin offers protection for women and children as well as relief for those who experience suffering. Scholars suggest that the popularity of Kuan-yin among Chinese in Southeast Asia arose because ancestral cults, which are based on notions of lineage, lost their hold or appeal among voluntary Buddhist associations in migrant communities (Topley 1961, Nyce 1971, Baity 1975, Sangren 1983 in Lee and Ackerman 1997, 69). Kuan-yin’s popularity signaled the decline of patrilineal forms of relations and organizations due to the dominance of impersonal market conditions. Thus, Kuan-yin-venerating voluntary Buddhist associations that upheld and propagated a “universalistic kinship idiom” (Lee and Ackerman 1997, 70) were able to incorporate unrelated people of different social status, language, and ethnicity into communities that comprised members, followers, and devotees. The idea of “universal kinship” entailed new forms of social relatedness through membership and association of faith. It facilitated the development of new social organizations and relations determined by what people do and how they act in a new environment.

Organizations such as the Great Way of the Former Heaven (Topley 1963), a secretive sect that arrived with the waves of Chinese migration during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, played a vital role as a voluntary Buddhist association that propagated Kuan-yin veneration in Southeast Asia. It nurtured the idiom of universal kinship that incorporated devotees into a community of “Kuan-yin’s children.” The origin of the Great Way of the Former Heaven could be traced to the Buddhist sectarian White Lotus sect, which sprang up during the fourteenth century against Mongol rule in China and played an instrumental role in the establishment of the Ming dynasty, which reigned from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century.

Later, sect members who were wealthy Chinese merchants donated money and land to set up a series of Kuan-yin temples, including the Waterloo Street Kuan-yin temple in Singapore in 1884, which gained a reputation for efficacy. They also established a series of “vegetarian halls” that functioned as “mutual aid establishments for women who sought to live unmarried or to remain unmarried once they had been widowed” (Prazniak 1999, 229) in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia following commercial and family connections as well as philanthropic interests. All the efforts that went into establishing public temples and semi-private vegetarian halls not only contributed to the efficacy and popularity of Kuan-yin veneration but also laid the ground for the development of redemptive societies.

Compassion: Inclusive Spiritualism, Moral Reasoning, and Self-Cultivation in Practice

KYCO’s ethos of compassion symbolizes an inclusive spiritualism, morality, and self-cultivation that are embodied and expressed vividly in the everyday life and struggles of followers. Lim Kuan Meng is a Kuala Lumpur native and lifelong KYCO follower. Strongly opinionated, he has a caustic sense of humor and a wry wit to match. Nothing is too sacred for him; his sarcasm spares no one and has earned him a reputation. He is revered and respected as an elder but also quietly loathed for his acidic tongue. Mr. Lim joined KYCO more than 20 years ago through his wife, who regularly attended Sifu’s Dharma sessions. Now in their mid-60s, the couple live in nearby Petaling Jaya.

An economics graduate of the University of Malaya, Mr. Lim pursued a professional career in banking, where he reviewed and dispensed loans to individuals as well as private businesses for the most part of his working life. But several years ago he was forced into early retirement, and for a period of time he found himself in a precarious financial position. He struggled to make ends meet, relying on an irregular stream of income from periodic consulting jobs advising small companies. On a few occasions, usually after a Dharma session, we would hang out at the neighborhood coffee shop to chat. I took the chance to speak with him about his religious and spiritual pursuits. Mr. Lim disclosed that he became more serious about religion after his early retirement: he devoted one hour each morning to praying, chanting, and meditating at home. He made it quite clear to me that his spiritual practice was not just an escape into the quiet or a withdrawal into himself, but an outreach to others through charity and service, which he considers to be the most important part of his spirituality.

During my encounters with Mr. Lim, we talked frequently about the world economy. Deeply frustrated with the financial crisis of 2008, he could not come to terms with how a small elite group of men—investment bankers, driven by greed and personal gain—could make decisions that adversely affected the lives of so many people around the world. He was critical of “easy credit” consumption and felt that “real businesses” such as the small enterprises that he consulted for had to pay the price and suffer because of the tightening credit crunch. It was a spiral into a moral abyss, Mr. Lim decried. Over many late-night suppers, he gave me a gloomy prognosis of the socioeconomic situation in Malaysia: foreclosures of businesses and houses, a prolonged slump in the property and stock markets, and high unemployment. He lamented the rising cost of living, especially in cities such as Kuala Lumpur, and said, “Inflation has been rampant and wages stagnant over the past decade. The quality of life has deteriorated. Even eating out [in Kuala Lumpur] has become costly for many people. Imagine a plate of chicken rice that costs RM4.50, even RM5, versus S$2.50 in Singapore on a wage level that is comparatively lower here.”

Mr. Lim felt that something had been fundamentally wrong over the past decade, when people did not seem to have benefited from the economic growth years before the financial crisis hit in 2008. “Where was the prosperity that the government kept talking about?” he asked. “People just do not feel it.” His disappointment, as he pointed out himself, had come from “the hard-hitting reality on the ground.” Expressing sympathy toward young working adults, especially those who were planning or just starting a family, he cited the exorbitant costs of a marriage banquet, buying a house, getting a car, and other concerns that reflected a sense of his own trepidation for his children’s future. Mr. Lim’s perspective of the world was grim and pessimistic. He did not camouflage his sometimes dark and pensive mood or fatalistic views. “The way I see it, people’s lives are getting more and more difficult, even desperate,” he said, not foreseeing an end to the sources of human suffering and viewing the world as declining. His reflection on the difficult human circumstances (including his own) ruptured by the fickle boom-and-bust cycles of the modern financial and economic system only hardened his fatalistic view of the world. “It is not that I am angry or pessimistic,” he said ironically, “the world can only become a better place provided that people become more compassionate.” Compassion was a powerful moral imperative that he strongly believed would make this world a better, if not more bearable, place to live in. He said compassion “moves people’s hearts so that they could hear the sufferings of others.” The value of compassion—the empathy of suffering with those who suffer, leading to benevolent action—is often cited as the central emphasis of KYCO and a core quality for followers.

There were two significant events in Mr. Lim’s life when he made “personal sacrifices”: on the first occasion, he gave a significant sum of money to help an acquaintance—the father of his daughter’s classmate, mired in debt—even though he himself was not financially secure; and on the second occasion, he gave a huge sum of money to help out an old friend who had lost his fortune in the erratic property market. Mr. Lim recounted:

I had a call from an old friend whom I had been worried about, for I knew he was going through very difficult moments in life. I was glad he called, for he was on my mind then. He had been out of work for a year and hoped that I could help in some real estate brokerage deals. He had some clients, but the properties for sale were marginalized properties that did not excite the market at all. Nor were the potential buyers he had genuine. I sensed he was in quite deep financial difficulty and found him emaciating fast! It was not a good sign, especially the latter, as I had just lost a friend to cancer who had had accelerated emaciation just six months before he died. As it was four days to Chinese New Year, I was concerned this filial son, a good husband and father to three sons, may just find the festive season too difficult to face. I called him for a drink. When I passed him a “red packet” and apologized I could not give more, he broke into tears and said: “All my friends have avoided me and refused to help. Without asking, you gave me this.” His tears flowed heavier when he felt the weight of the red packet, which contained a substantial sum—enough to buy a home theater set. I wanted only for him to be able to hold his head high. I told him he was to take his mother in Ipoh and his family for a reunion dinner and to buy them necessities for the New Year, never to let them worry at all. I’ll try to settle his delinquent housing loan. . . . He then subsequently confided in me that now, at the age of 50, he had contracted nose cancer. I had to fight off my tears all that while, as I regretted I was truly unable to really help much more as I too was unemployed and had been medically forced into retirement. I told him that was what brothers were for as we parted!

The suffering of his friends weighed heavily on Mr. Lim; their anguish inflicted as much shame and guilt as it induced compassion and empathy in him. The compassion that Mr. Lim felt for his friends who were down on their luck was inscribed by the shame and guilt he felt over being unable to do more despite his relatively more secure and better-off position in life. Stories of “personal sacrifices” like Mr. Lim’s articulate a situated-ness or consciousness in the world that do not suggest collective advocacy or social action but turn to the importance of personal commitment and individual action. Mr. Lim cast socioeconomic problems within the ambit of personal responsibility and spirituality. He recognized these problems as systemic or structural as well as moral in nature. By thinking about the difficulties that he and his friends had confronted in moral terms, Mr. Lim considered what kind of person he was trying to become or what he could and should be. His perspective emphasized compassion as an end in itself and not so much a means or solution to social problems.

In his narration, Mr. Lim expressed compassion as an ultimate imperative to be pursued with determined effort. According to him, compassion was a matter of heart-work rather than something dogmatic, prescriptive, or coercive. When I asked Mr. Lim more pointedly to explain what compassion meant to him and what it took to be compassionate, he replied firmly:

My ideal is to be kind, and I will try to be kind. I may not be perfectly kind, but I can be kind any time I want to be. And I do not move toward whether I will be kind; I will be kind whenever I should be and must be kind. That is how I move forward . . . always moving toward something better. Not only kind, but I am going to be kind and caring, kind and helpful, kind and gentle, kind and charitable, kind and noble. I will keep on moving until a time comes when I [can] say that I am going to be selflessly kind . . .

In elaborating on the meaning of compassion, Mr. Lim imagined a “progressive path” toward “selfless kindness” that could be understood as an “unconditional,” “no strings attached,” “without expecting anything in return” type of kindness. More importantly to Mr. Lim, it was a matter of autonomy—“I can be kind any time I want to be”—expressing free will as it pertained to the exercise of compassion. During one of our conversations, I asked Mr. Lim how he knew whether he was successful in his spiritual-moral endeavor. He replied with some bittersweet bemusement, “You will always be a joyous person even if your life is difficult: joyous because you know many others are happier than you—this is selflessness.” Mr. Lim’s response illustrates moral reasoning, which by one’s own means and volition—and effected on one’s thoughts and conduct—is critical to the attainment of compassion as well as a state of peace and happiness.

Compassion is also about skills and practice, particularly empathetic suffering with those who suffer, leading to benevolent action. Spiritual adepts are expected to act on their sense of compassion with a desire to do so, with no strings attached, and without expectation of anything in return. This is best demonstrated through intended acts of charitable giving, defined by the exemplary standards of the Bodhisattva. As an “embodied ethical ideal” (Mrozik 2004), the Bodhisattva is virtue incarnate. This is illustrated in the popular Chinese legend of the Bodhisattva Kuan-yin, who in her mortal life as Princess Miao-shan sacrificed herself to save her cruel and despotic father.

“How do we make compassion real, rather than it just being a good idea and an ideal?” I asked Mr. Lim. He highlighted how KYCO had organized visits and raised funds for several charity institutions, including the nondenominational orphanage run by Mother Mangalam of Pure Life Society. He explained empathetically that “real charity” came from self-cultivation and said, “Without skills, you can tell a joke at the wrong time; without wisdom and compassion, you contribute to charity wrongly.” Thus, self-cultivation is critical in opening the heart and connecting one with the feelings of compassion and kindness. Effective self-cultivation also enables practitioners to develop a sense of equanimity and calmness in the face of adversities and adversaries.

Listening with the Heart: Moral Empathy and Skills

During one of our regular suppers at a café near KYCO, I confided in Kiat my increasing frustration with Sifu’s Dharma lectures: it had been several months already, and in spite of my efforts, I still did not know what to make of these lectures, which seemed esoteric and didactic to my untrained ears. In his kindly and patient way, Kiat advised me to “open my heart.” He said, “Do not feel pressurized to understand everything that Sifu is saying. Just know that the intentions are good, and try to listen with your heart. Listen with a pure heart and go along with your feelings of sincerity and kindness.”

By exhorting that I listen with my heart, Kiat suggested that I would be able to perceive the essence of Sifu’s Dharma lectures without necessarily understanding them. Kiat’s statement points to a form of comprehension or understanding that is not necessarily conceptual. This conception of knowing without understanding is played out between distinctions of the heart and mind, wisdom and knowledge, where the wisdom attained through spiritual practice is distinguished from the kind of knowledge acquired through thinking and reasoning. In other words, knowing is not the same as having knowledge. In order to know, I would first have to learn how to listen with my heart.

Listening to Sifu’s Dharma lectures is an exercise in self-discipline, as devotees/followers strive to learn how to improve themselves. Followers take Sifu’s Dharma lectures, held two or three times a week, seriously. Attending the lectures constitutes a learning that enriches self-knowledge and purifies the heart. According to Kiat, listening to Sifu’s Dharma lectures has enabled him to deal better with life events; it has also helped him become a better person. Listening with the heart is a metonym for discipline. My frustration with the “incomprehensibility” of Sifu’s Dharma lectures demonstrated to Kiat that listening was not a passive process: simply listening to Sifu’s Dharma lectures does not necessarily make one a follower or a more moral person; one needs to listen with sincerity and conviction, concentration as well as intention.

The effects of Sifu’s Dharma lectures are evocative—the lectures attempt to inspire responses such as shame and repentance, humility and equanimity. These are affective dispositions that endow the heart with the capacity to think and feel morally. Sifu’s audience reciprocates by “listening properly”: during lectures followers sit with their backs straight, take notes, and maintain a serious attitude throughout.

Sifu’s oratorical virtuosity is evidenced by his ability to move some of his audience to various states of introspection, elation, and even sadness. But Sifu is reticent about such emotions and passions: emotions are not an end—they must lead to moral transformation. Sifu’s rhetorical techniques deployed to effect the desired emotions, passions, and affective dispositions can be outlined in three parts: first, the invocation of human suffering and misery such as the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, tensions in the restive southern region of Thailand, and the conflict in the Middle East aim to startle listeners out of their complacency. Natural calamities as well as socio-political unrest around the world provide a rich “eschatological phantasmagoria” (Hirschkind 2001, 631) to draw upon. Second, Dharma lectures edify by reproaching and berating, for example in a lecture on “relationship” Sifu chided his audience:

That is why if anyone has got no love for his or her parents, that is a very, very unfortunate being. Such beings will have much to answer at the end of life, and future lifetimes will surely have an unfortunate life of being rejected in his childhood because whoever does not repay parental love, even the Buddha will not cast His love upon him. . . . So you have to think very, very carefully. If you cannot love your parents, you are someone who is worse than an animal. . . . If we ever ill-treat our parents, then, according to our Path and most religions, this is one way of going down to Hell.

Third, by weaving his lectures into the lived experiences of his audience, Sifu highlights problems of everyday life such as setbacks and anxieties over health, relationships, and work that point toward or can lead to certain solutions and resolutions. The rhetorical method Sifu deploys in his lectures often entails moral exhortation and a call for the practice of self-cultivation. In his lectures, Sifu maps out a system of progression from anxiety and fear to shame and guilt, then to repentance, forgiveness, empathy, and finally compassion. It attempts to prescribe a set of emotions to be experienced by the listener, and seeks to achieve a moral state that is founded upon the embodied capacities of emotion such as the ability to allay anger and to forgive others for their wrongdoings and transgressions (real or perceived), rather than obedience to rules, doctrine, or belief.

The success of Sifu’s Dharma lectures is ultimately dependent on the listening skill of his audience. The cultivation of this listening skill is essential for the audience to be moved as well as to derive meanings and insights from these lectures. Listening with the heart speaks of a moral and disciplinary practice that aims to mold and strengthen resolve; it has less to do with the indoctrination or dissemination of rules than the formation of a sensorium; it seeks neither to persuade nor force but to arouse feelings so as to impart perceptual habits that predispose one toward certain actions and states of mind. It is about developing a moral outlook, about learning to interpret, understand, and act upon the world as “a space of moral action and the actor as a moral being” (ibid., 641).

Sifu’s Dharma lectures focus mainly on the cultivation of perceptual skills and habits that are fundamentally grounded in a morality rather than a concern with tradition, doctrine, or discourse. This is similar to what some scholars have argued in anthropological studies on Islamic and Christian practices—that the conception of what constitutes “apt performance” is “not the apparent repetition of an old form” (Asad 1986, 14–15 in Hirschkind 2001, 641). The perceptual skill of empathy and the disposition of compassion that practitioners seek to cultivate are honed by years of praying, chanting, contemplating, and listening with the heart. Listening with the heart as a disciplinary form of self-cultivation highlights and exaggerates emotions such as pity, joy, and sadness. It evokes a sense of compassion, beauty, gentleness, and grace that magnifies and scrutinizes the processes of feeling, thinking, and empathizing.

Like their predecessors from redemptive societies, KYCO followers are encouraged to “bring forth” their qualities of kindness and compassion through listening with the heart as a way of self-cultivation. The focus on the self is explicit and essential for the cultivation of virtues in order to meet moral or ethical demands and to negate or avoid negative karma. In sharpening one’s sense of self-awareness, it aims to open up potentials and possibilities for the right action instead of restricting and restraining one from wrong conduct. As a form of self-fashioning, self-cultivation is part of an identity project where devotees and followers seek to (re)constitute and transform themselves into the kind of person they think they ought to become, at a time of religious and political tensions marked by episodic violence. Such violence includes the “cow head incident” on August 28, 2009, in which Muslim protestors brought along and desecrated a cow’s head to oppose the relocation of a Hindu temple from one residential area to another in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur (Boston Globe, August 29, 2009; Singh 2010).

The virtue of compassion as a bedrock of spiritual and moral life for followers is widely acceptable and generally recognized as an exemplary goal and noble principle for self-cultivation. In this respect, nobody needs any persuasion or compulsion to convince themselves of the immediate merit of Sifu’s teachings. However, followers would have to constantly listen and re-listen, read and reread Sifu’s lectures and teachings, in order to gradually gain many insights into his perspective of the world. The moral dictates and goals articulated in Sifu’s lectures and teachings are challenging to fulfill, but for serious followers they have become a life-consuming pursuit. Standing firm in their conviction, these followers strongly believe that if they cultivate with a true heart and follow Sifu’s instructions closely, it is possible to attain the goal of fully living out the Bodhisattva Vow they have made.

For many devotees and followers of KYCO, self-cultivation is nothing more than an efficacious practice in the ideals of compassion, service, and reverence—one in which people meet other sincere, well-meaning, polite, helpful, and encouraging people, where they find support and friendship in a semi-formalized spiritual and moral fellowship of sorts. For them, self-cultivation is not overtly about freedom or political power but a way that involves potentially a new rationale and understanding. Applied as an everyday life tactic, self-cultivation allows people to “escape without leaving” (De Certeau 2000), even momentarily, the sometimes uncertain and anxiety-filled situations that are experienced and expressed as suffering. The politics of self-cultivation plays out mainly as an internal drama of the self—reimagining and remaking oneself within the social and political order that contains it, articulated by the moral ideology and inclusive spiritualism of redemptive societies.


This paper describes the spiritual experience and aspirations of a contemporary grassroots religious movement exemplified by KYCO in Malaysia. It examines KYCO’s ethos of inclusive spiritualism, morality, and compassion and situates it within the cultural and historical tradition of redemptive societies and its discourse of the body, self-cultivation, and religious universalism. It also highlights how the spiritual and mundane, the ethical and ideological, the moral and political as well as the self and social are intertwined and mutually constitutive rather than distinct and causal.

On nearly every other day of the week, from early evening until late into the night, the premises of KYCO ring softly with melodic chanting and singing, which adds an ethereal feel to the tranquility of its middle-class suburban neighborhood. There is a keen sense of power, something emanating from the deliberate voice of Sifu echoing through the in-house speakers and in the pensive gaze of his followers. There is no doubt among the followers that the KYCO space they fill almost every second day is abundant with a melancholic but purposeful and contemplative energy. For a few precious hours on those days, KYCO opens up as a space for followers to reflect, to express, and to seek answers to life’s complex problems; it is also a place for them to gain strength and find solace in the company of their “brothers and sisters in Dharma.” The power or energy that they draw upon, mobilize, and renew is an everyday power of affection as well as personal effectiveness.

Listening to Sifu’s Dharma lectures and watching enraptured KYCO followers diligently taking notes and engulfed in their own thoughts, I am alerted to the seriousness with which they take the fulfillment of the Bodhisattva Vow they have taken or, as Sifu said in one of his Dharma lectures, “. . . to transform ourselves from human-hood to Bodhisattva-hood.” Transformation and change are central themes in Sifu’s teachings, and so are they core ideas in many religious traditions. Yet these traditions, whether in pursuit of sage-hood or Bodhisattva-hood, are not the only or necessarily the main cultural reference points for KYCO followers who also furbish their own understanding from Sai Baba, Tibetan Buddhism, Theosophy, New Age teachings, and popular psychology references. All these have come to inform the ideas and processes through which they make of themselves the kind of people they think they ought to become—in the terms and principles of inclusive spiritualism. Buddhist compassion is understood as inclusive spiritualism and embodied through moral reasoning as well as self-cultivation that do not compel followers toward any singular or particular truth claim. Instead, it initiates a reflexive and empathetic process of listening with the heart that works on one’s anxieties, guilt, and shame as well as hopes and passions in order to help one adapt to or face one’s circumstances, fate, and karmic providence.

Followers are enjoined to fulfill their Bodhisattva Vow not through the imposition of codes and rules of conduct or beliefs but through the development of perceptual habits, skills, and ethical capacities as well as reflexivity in terms of what they have to consider for themselves to be apt conduct and moral or ethical action. In the context of contemporary Malaysia, rife with politically charged religious and ethnic tensions as well as economic uncertainties, followers voice these anxieties not as the cause nor condition of suffering but challenges to be overcome by themselves. By working on themselves and their moralities, they have sought to expand their spiritual repertoire or perceptual horizons and emotional capacities charged with social and political potential, where the historical precedent of redemptive societies sheds some light on their moral aspirations and religious experiences.

Accepted: May 13, 2015


I wish to thank Goh Beng Lan, Graham M. Jones, and Susan S. Silbey for their intellectual direction as well as Prasenjit Duara for opening up an entire scholarly universe in one of his courses on Chinese civilization and religion at the National Univ ersity of Singapore (NUS). I also wish to thank the anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments. This paper is based in part on fieldwork supported by NUS during my PhD dissertation. Finally, I am deeply grateful to KYCO for their generous hospitality, patience, and guidance.


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1) Vesak is a holiday observed by Buddhists in many countries. Vesak commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and passing away of the Buddha. It falls on a full moon day, typically during the fifth or sixth lunar month of the year.

2) Out of respect to religious sensitivities in Malaysia and to protect confidentiality, most names in this paper are pseudonyms.

3) UMNO stands for United Malays National Organisation. It is the dominant political party amongst 13 other parties organized along ethnic and communal lines, in the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN). Other component parties of BN include the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), and Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (Gerakan or Malaysia’s Peoples Movement). During the general election of March 2008, BN lost its two-thirds majority in the Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives), which it had held since independence in August 1957; 82 parliamentary seats and 5 states went to a newly formed coalition, the Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance or PR) led by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. The election marked the start of a series of power struggles between and within these two political groups. See also “Malaysia in 2009: Confronting Old Challenges through a New Leadership” (Singh 2010).

4) In Buddhism, “beautiful bodies” serve as visible markers of, and are presumed to be the karmic effects of, morality. For example, it is written in the Pali Buddhist canon “Digha Nikaya” that the Buddha is reported to have borne 32 greater and 80 lesser marks held to be distinguished qualities of the body. Thus, a description of a person’s physical features and appearances may serve as a commentary of his or her moral character (Mrozik 2004).

5) The notion of suffering also requires us to attend to the idea of embodiment—that is, that human action and experience are sited in a material body—as well as the idea of the body as an “integrated totality having developable capacities for activity and experience unique to it, the capacities for sensing, imagining, and doing that are culturally mediated” (Asad 1993, 89). I argue that the body’s ability to suffer and respond to suffering, as well as to use its own suffering in social relationships by empathizing with others, constitute the conduct and experiences of KYCO marchers during the Vesak day procession of 2008.

6) In Mahayana Buddhist practice, vow taking underscores a compelling desire to cultivate compassion and is such a highly esteemed virtue that every new aspirant is advised to take the Bodhisattva Vow, which speaks of self-sacrifice and solidarity. Adapted from the Mahayana Bodhisattva Vow, the KYCO version is as follows: “All beings without number, I vow to liberate. Endless blind passions, I vow to uproot. Dharma Doors beyond measure, I vow to penetrate. The great way of Buddha, I vow to attain.”

7) Cantonese, rather than Mandarin, is the lingua franca of the Chinese community in Kuala Lumpur.

8) In this context, wenming refers to the Chinese intellectual discourse of civilization that emerged during the late nineteenth century where elites from inside and outside the imperial court were concerned about the “backwardness” of Chinese society. They had contesting ideas about modernizing and reforming the government as well as differing ideologies regarding sovereignty and civilization (see also Duara 2003, 89–129).

9) Jiaohua refers to the moral transformation of the person as well as society. The term is rooted in the Confucianist imperial ideology “to morally transform by means of virtuous rule” (Duara 2003, 106). It emphasizes social propriety and obligations rooted in cosmological “truths,” and is deeply connected to the discourse of wenming or civilization.

10) Waiwang literally means “outer king” (Duara 2003, 108). It is premised on a Chinese spiritual dialectic of the internal or “inner sage” (neisheng) i.e. the mind: emotions and thoughts, and the external or “outer king” (waiwang) of the body: behavior and conduct.


Vol. 3, No. 1, Siti Nuraishah Ahmad

Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 1

Malaysia as the Archetypal Garden in the British Creative Imagination

Siti Nuraishah Ahmad*

* Department of English Language and Literature, International Islamic University Malaysia, Jalan Gombak Kuala Lumpur 53100, Malaysia

e-mail: snuraishah[at]

European travel writing (1512–1984) represented Malaysia as a tropical Garden of Eden, an image that has also percolated into literary texts concerning the region. This article examines spatial images in British fiction through the framework of archetypal literary criticism and theories of colonial representations of space to reveal the worlding (Spivak 1999) of Malaysia as a garden. In order to ascertain the ways in which the garden archetype has been deployed by the British creative imagination in the past and the present, novels from the colonial and postcolonial periods have been selected for analysis. Three dominant incarnations of the garden archetype can be discerned throughout novels by Joseph Conrad, W. Somerset Maugham, and Anthony Burgess: the lush, Romantic garden; the restrained, ­disciplined Victorian garden; and the barren, dried-up garden. The postcolonial British novel, for its part, deploys images of the barren garden revived (William Riviere’s Borneo Fire) as well as a return to the earlier Conradian image of the Romantic locus amoenus (Frederick Lees’ Fool’s Gold). This article concludes that the representation of Malaysia in various guises of the archetypal garden negates the indigenous worldview concerning space and produces instead “knowledge” about Malaysia rooted in the white man’s perspective.

Keywords: archetypes, British fiction, colonialism and space, Malaysia, representation


Since the arrival of Portuguese traders in Malacca in the sixteenth century, Malaysia1) has been represented in European travel writing and fiction as an archetypal garden. This is also the case in English literature, for example, the novels and short stories by Joseph Conrad, William Somerset Maugham, and Anthony Burgess; in addition, these works and their authors have been regarded as canonical where Malaysia is concerned. Therefore, this paper reads images of Malaysia in British fiction through the framework of archetypal literary criticism and theories of colonial representations of space to reveal the production of a specific body of knowledge about Malaysia revolving around the garden archetype. The focus of this article is on representations of British Malaya: the parts of the Malay Peninsula under British administration (1786–1957); Singapore (1819–1957); British Borneo, that is, the parts of Borneo ruled by the Brookes (1842–1946) and the British North Borneo Company (1882–1946); and Malaysia, that is, the federation of 13 states in the Malay Peninsula, Sabah, and Sarawak (1963–present). It highlights the importance of representations of space in shaping the British creative imagination on Malaysia, where previous research focused on representations of its peoples and cultures. It also extends the discussion of literary works on Malaysia beyond that of the British writers who are more familiar to readers—Conrad, Maugham, and Burgess—to others such as Frederick Lees and William Riviere.

The archetype of the garden, suggesting “paradise; innocence; unspoiled beauty; fertility” (Guerin et al. 2005, 189) is an important and recurrent image in travel writing about Malaysia. Sixteenth-century Portuguese travel accounts portrayed the countryside of Malacca as a veritable Garden of Eden, with abundant waters and excellent soil from which the local inhabitants could easily pick their food. Besides edible plants, there were others that could be commercially exploited. Godinho de Eredia, for example, reported seeing various trees and shrubs that could produce “gums and oils that one could fill a ship’s hold with . . .” (de Eredia [1613] 1997, 22).

In eighteenth-century travel narratives, Malaysia is still portrayed as a garden. A Portuguese text on Johor by Joao de Vellez Guerreiro celebrates Johor’s climate of “perpetual Spring” and “the large and diverse growth of many trees” (de Vellez Guerreiro [1732] 1935, 119). Western fascination with the country intensified in the nineteenth century as the rise of imperialism and developments in science and technology during the Victorian Age in England brought British men and women to Malaya and Borneo to rule it and to study it. There were explorers, naturalists, colonial administrators, political agents, missionaries, tourists, and travelers. A variety of texts were written, from many perspectives, to portray the Malay Peninsula and North and West Borneo, and the archetypal garden consistently appeared in such writings. Isabella Bird, the famous Victorian travel writer, spoke of the Malayan jungle as “a huge spread of foliage, bearing glorious yellow blossoms of delicious fragrance” (Bird [1883] 2006, 135), while in Borneo James Brooke described his first impressions of being in the rainforest, using distinctly Edenic imagery, as “nature fresh from the bosom of creation . . . stamped with the same impress she originally bore!” (Keppel 1846, 19). A variation on the garden archetype found in Hugh Clifford’s stories about Malaya (1897) is the “enchanted land,” where sensual delights and experiences await the European who dares to venture here.

A century later, V. S. Naipaul, a British writer of Trinidadian origin, arrived in Malaysia to record his impressions of the country. Employing the archetype of the garden in his account of the lush vegetation and what to him was the extreme fertility of Malaysian soil, he wrote:

The land was rich: rain and heat and rivers, fertile soil bursting with life, with bananas, rice fields, palm trees, rubber. Grass grew below the rubber trees; and cattle, which would have suffered in the sun, found pasture in the shade. The heat which in the town was hard to bear was in the countryside more pleasant. Water and sun encouraged vegetation that sheltered and cooled; and green quickly covered the red earth where it had been exposed by road works or building developments. (Naipaul 1982, 254)

The intertextuality between travel literature and works of fiction concerning Malaysia presents us with the possibility of the garden image spilling into fiction, perpetuating the image across genres and generations of writers who have traveled in Malaysia. Joseph Conrad (1857–1924), William Somerset Maugham (1874–1965), and Anthony Burgess (1917–93) are writers whose novels and short stories have made the country familiar to generations of English-literature readers.2) Their works roughly represent the early colonial period (Conrad), the high colonial period (Maugham), and the late colonial period (Burgess). As for the postcolonial period, William Riviere (1954–) and Frederick Lees (1924–) have added to the corpus of fiction about Malaysia, tackling themes and events from the Malayan Emergency (1948–60) to the deforestation of East Malaysia.3) This paper examines the role of the garden archetype in representing Malaysia in the following literary texts: Joseph Conrad’s An Outcast of the Island (1896); William Somerset Maugham’s stories in the collection titled The Casuarina Tree (1926); Anthony Burgess’ Time for a Tiger (1956); William Riviere’s Borneo Fire (1995); and Frederick Lees’ Fool’s Gold: The Malayan Life of Ferdach O’Haney (2004).

Archetypal literary criticism involves a close study of images and motifs, in other words, archetypes, defined by Carl Jung as “mental forms . . . which seem to be aboriginal, innate, and inherited shapes of the human mind” (Jung 1978, 57). The garden is one such archetype, and it has appeared in various incarnations in the mythologies and ­literatures of the world. In this paper, the garden archetype in colonial and postcolonial British fiction are investigated in order to reveal the British project of “worlding” Malaysia (Spivak 1999)—representing and producing specific images of Malaysia through the imposition of Western notions of truth, knowledge, and the importance of writing.

The research questions that this paper will answer are as follows: What are the patterns in which the garden archetype is used to represent Malaysia in British fiction? In what ways do the patterns of images in which the garden archetype appears reveal specific archetypes about Malaysia? In what instances are the garden archetype used and repeated throughout the literary texts analyzed? What are the combinations of the garden archetype, colonial rhetoric, and/or strategies of worlding with which the British creative imagination represents Malaysia?

Previous literature on European colonialism and its representation of colonized peoples, cultures, and spaces in Malaysia and other regions are reviewed in the following section in order to establish the position of this paper in the field. It is followed by a discussion of the theoretical framework used to examine the garden archetype in the works of Conrad, Maugham, Burgess, Riviere, and Lees. Jungian archetypal criticism, theories of colonial rhetoric by David Spurr (1993) and Pramod Nayar (2008), as well as Gayatri Spivak’s (1999) concept of worlding provide this study with the theoretical tools to answer the research questions. Also included is a section reviewing the meanings and significance of the garden motif in the Malay world and in the West in order to provide a background to the analysis of the garden archetype in British fiction.

The analysis divides the literary texts into those from the colonial period and those from the postcolonial period so as to trace the patterns of the garden archetype used to represent Malaysia over a period of almost 110 years.4) The conclusion summarizes the patterns in which the garden archetype is used by British writers to represent Malaysia and the notions about Malaysia that is produced as a result.

The use of the term “Malaysia” to refer to the geographical and sociopolitical areas covered in the works of the abovementioned British authors might to some be ambiguous. Joseph Conrad wrote his fiction in a time when the British were consolidating their power in not just the area included in today’s Federation of Malaysia, but also in Java, Sumatra, and Northeast Borneo (Hampson 2000, 15). Similarly, the settings for William Somerset Maugham and Anthony Burgess’ fiction are Sarawak and Perak respectively, before the creation of the Federation of Malaysia. However, the term “Malaysia” is used in this paper as a collective term for the various geopolitical incarnations encompassing the Malay Peninsula, Singapore, Borneo, and Sumatra from early British involvement at the end of the eighteenth century to the present, and is not restricted to the Federation of Malaysia that came into existence in 1963. This definition follows that of an early nineteenth-century coinage of the name “Malaysia” to refer to “a geographic-zoological-botanical region comprising the Malay Peninsula, Singapore, Borneo, Sumatra, and Java” (ibid., 14).

Literature Review

This paper aims to shed more light on the ways in which Malaysia is imagined by the West, a subject that has been addressed by several literary scholars but which is still relatively unexplored. For example, the portrayal of Malaysian peoples and cultures in fiction by Joseph Conrad is the topic of numerous studies such as van Marle (1985), Lester (1988), Hampson (2000), and Masood (2007). The representation of Malaysians in William Somerset Maugham’s short stories is the subject of Holden’s 1996 study, but few have actually addressed his and Conrad’s representations of the Malaysian geophysical environment. Studies by GoGwilt (1995), Zawiah (2003), and Yeow (2009) are the few that focus on the representation of Malaysia instead of Malaysians and their culture. Fewer still examine fiction by postcolonial British writers; Subramaniam and Pillai’s 2009 article on Henri Fauconnier’s The Soul of Malaya (1931) and William ­Riviere’s Borneo Fire (1995) are the exceptions. Meanwhile, Said’s (1978) framework of Orientalism remains the main theoretical approach in analyses of representations of Malaysia, for instance, in Hawthorn’s 2006 chapter on Conrad’s African and Malaysian fiction. This study proposes instead that archetypal criticism and worlding be deployed in readings of images of Malaysia in order to facilitate a careful study of how an archetypal image like the garden participates in the production of knowledge about Malaysia according to the British, from colonial to postcolonial times.

There are signs of colonial ideology at work in the seemingly innocent descriptions of landscape in fiction, which Zawiah Yahya examines in Resisting Colonialist Discourse (2003). This book is a vigorous critique against the pitfalls of reading English literature without equipping oneself with an awareness of the colonial discourse at work within such “canonical” texts. One of the ways in which colonial discourse infiltrates English literature is through descriptions of space, otherwise known as setting. Zawiah critically engages with novels by Joseph Conrad and Anthony Burgess (those with a Malaysian setting) to show how “novels claim space and convert it into a system of meaning—just as colonies claim territories and turn them into systems of meaning” (ibid., 106). Descriptions of space function as strategies of control through the author’s “claim to knowledge” (ibid., 168) about the lay of the land.

The importance of Zawiah’s work to the present study lies in its exhortation to postcolonial scholars and readers to be aware of how colonial ideology “interpellates” them (Althusser 2000) through literature. It also introduced the need to examine critically the ways in which Malaysia has been represented by the British during the colonial period. It applied various literary theories to provide an “against-the-grain” reading of Conrad and Burgess, including Marxist literary criticism, formalist criticism, and post-structuralism. This paper aims to extend the project of re-reading English literature initiated by Zawiah, looking specifically at representations of the Malaysian geophysical environment, applying Jung’s theory of archetypes, contemporary postcolonial theories on colonial rhetoric, and representation through worlding.

The importance of spatial images to colonialism was discussed in detail by Mary Louise Pratt in her study Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (1992). It draws attention to the ways in which narrative and rhetorical strategies were employed by European travelers to portray South America and Africa as wild, sublime, or idealistic. Pratt indirectly invokes archetypes in her observation that the European naturalist-traveler often portrays himself in the narrative as “Adam alone in his garden . . . [i]n the writing, people seem to disappear from the garden as Adam approaches . . .” (ibid., 51–52). This suggests that the Garden of Eden is a significant image in the representation of colonized land by Europeans, while the motif of the lone white man writing about his surroundings evokes worlding, an act in which the European imposes himself onto the space he colonizes via the act of writing (Spivak 1999, 209).

This paper will also identify the narrative and rhetorical strategies that help establish the garden archetype in British fiction about Malaysia. One of them is the Romantic rhetoric on space, which Pratt highlights in her analysis of nineteenth-century European travel writing.

Other studies on spatial representations of land in colonial narratives have also taken a similar path as Pratt’s by highlighting the various types of colonial rhetoric on landscape images. David Spurr (1993), for instance, identified several modes, among which the following are relevant to landscape and space:

Surveillance, or the establishment of power relations between colonizer and colonized and colonized space through the gaze

Appropriation, or the seizure of land using the justification of “inheritance” and on moral grounds

Debasement, or the representation of colonial space as the site of disease and filth

Eroticization, or the depiction of colonizer and colonized land in gendered and sexual terms

Negation, or the rhetorical strategy “by which Western writing conceives of the Other [space] as absence, emptiness, nothingness, or death” (ibid., 92); and

Insubstantialization, or the rendering of the exotic, non-European space as lacking reality, stability, and coherence

Spurr’s categorization of rhetorical modes enables a systematic approach to reading behind the seemingly neutral images of landscape described by colonial writers. It is particularly useful to examine the rhetorical processes with which British fiction worlds Malaysia, as the garden archetype can be established through eroticization, debasement, and negation. There are at present no previous studies which have taken this approach towards the representation of Malaysia in British literature, and so this study aims to fill that gap.

However, more recent studies theorizing the representation of space via colonial and/or imperial discourse reflect a growing awareness of the significance of spatial imagery within the field of postcolonial studies. They highlight not just the role of literary texts, but also that of travel writing, in the creation of specific images of colonies in Africa, America, Asia, and Australia. They usually combine several theoretical perspectives in addition to postcolonial criticism, thus providing new and interesting readings of colonial spatial representations. One such work is Pramod K. Nayar’s English Writing and India, 1600–1920: Colonizing Aesthetics (2008). It explores the nature of colonial rhetoric on landscape in more detail, using colonial writing on India from the seventeenth century onwards as case studies. Nayar writes exclusively on British colonial representations of Indian space, which echoes this paper’s project of looking at British colonial representations of Malaysian space as distinct from other colonial powers such as the French and the Dutch. Like Spurr (1993), his interest is in how rhetorical strategies have been employed by the British to understand and represent an unfamiliar space:

. . . particular aesthetic modes trope[d] India in specific ways in order to demonstrate English control and power over it. The various tropings of India were transformative in nature, proposing particular roles for the English in India. In the early, mercantile age it helps English rhetorical or narrative control over Indian variety and vastness. The later aesthetics of the picturesque and the sublime map a colonial shift from a primitive, poor and desolate India to an altered and “improved,” “Englished” one. (Nayar 2008, 3)

Nayar’s work is useful to this research since it gives priority to spatial representations of the colony rather than to the colonized peoples and their culture. His study follows up on the work done on textual strategies of colonial discourse on space by Mary Louise Pratt (1992) and David Spurr (1993). This paper applies some of Nayar’s concepts in the analysis of the garden archetype (see “Methodology”). However, while Nayar describes the images of India in colonial writing from an aesthetic perspective, he does not treat them as instances of archetypes in a British collective unconscious5) on India. It is the archetypal perspective on space that this article foregrounds.

In light of the objectives of this paper, Sharae Deckard’s Paradise Discourse, Imperialism, and Globalization: Exploiting Eden (2010) adds support to the proposal that the British worlded Malaysia using the garden archetype. Applying cultural materialist, ecocritical, and postcolonial perspectives, Deckard compares the varieties of paradise discourse in which Europeans have represented colonies lying in tropical regions: ­Mexico, Tanzania, Zanzibar, and Sri Lanka. Her discussion of the discourse on paradise is particularly relevant because of Western literary and mass media representations of Malaysia as a tropical paradise or tropical Eden. This study focuses on the production of knowledge by the British through an image related to paradise discourse—the garden; however, it does not cover as broad a geographical area as Deckard’s work nor the economic ramifications of the garden archetype in contemporary times, both of which require a separate research.

As for studies on fictional portrayals of Malaysia, Norman Sherry’s Conrad’s Eastern World (1971) is an early attempt at mapping out Conrad’s Malay world. Sherry sets out to reveal the real-life inspiration of the fictional Patusan and Sambir that appeared in novels such as Almayer’s Folly and Lord Jim (identified as an amalgamation of Berau, on the northeast coast of Borneo, and Sumatra). On the whole, Sherry’s book would be of interest to those who would like to know the “autobiography” of Conrad’s characters and settings, so to speak. However, aside from providing definite compass points with which a reader of Conrad’s stories can navigate him/herself with, it is not a critical piece on spatial representations of Malaysia.

Recent studies have sought to address the gaps in Sherry’s work. For example, Jeremy Hawthorn (2006) provides a reading of the sexual politics between male colonizer and female colonized enacted in the tropical jungles of Borneo, the setting of Conrad’s An Outcast of the Islands (1896). According to Hawthorn, the landscape—the fecund, “writhing” jungle—becomes a metaphor for the danger that the female colonized subject poses to the male European: “The desirable woman in Conrad’s fiction, often displaced into mud and creepers, tempts, undermines, corrupts, and finally kills and consumes the vulnerable man” (Hawthorn 2006, 232). This projection of the Oriental femme fatale onto the tropical landscape invokes the enchanted garden (Frye 1990, 149) that seduces and traps the gullible hero. In this way, Malaysia becomes part of the colonial “porno-tropics”—a “libidinously eroticized” zone on which Europe projects “its forbidden sexual desires and fears” (McClintock 1995, 22).

Hawthorn’s arguments revolve around the concept of binary opposites discussed by Edward Said in Orientalism (1978). The opposing pair of Oriental woman-as-predator and European man-as-prey in Conrad’s African and Malaysian fiction reveals the racism in Conrad’s works. Rather than seeing such images as binary opposites, this paper proposes instead that they be viewed as archetypes that help establish a certain image of Malaysia. The Oriental femme fatale that Hawthorn notes in An Outcast of the Islands, for instance, can be read as the negative anima6) (von Franz 1978, 187) that could serve as a means of Othering. In the context of colonial representations of space, archetypal figures also contribute to the representation of Malaysia as an archetypal garden, as will be discussed in the analysis.

Christopher GoGwilt (1995) and Agnes Yeow (2009) have also given more attention to the significance of landscape in Conrad’s Malaysian fiction. Both argue that Conrad’s depiction of space and landscape is crucial to understand how notions of the “West” and the “East” in the age of imperialism were constructed. The landscape of the Malay Archipelago is subjected to an eroticizing treatment in Conrad’s fiction, says GoGwilt, in order to naturalize the irrevocable difference between the “East” and the “West” ­(GoGwilt 1995, 50). However, he adds, Conrad’s exotic landscape more often than not reveals the problems behind this “natural” division of “East” and “West.”

The representation of Malaysia in English literature also contributes to how the “East” is constructed as a region that defies definition and comprehension. Agnes Yeow (2009) identifies the imagery of the sea in Conrad’s Malaysian novels as one of the means by which this mysterious “East” is fashioned. The following extract from Yeow’s study ties in with Spurr’s argument that colonial space is subjected to the rhetoric of insubstantialization (Spurr 1993, 142), and suggests that spatial imagery helps support a notion of the disorienting Orient:

In Conrad’s East, the sea is a vast and potentially distorting mirror where refracted and fragmented images abound and where reflections rather than the thing itself are emphasized. The imagery Conrad employs again and again in describing his fictional land and seascape evokes a nebulous and hazy setting where things are not quite what they appear to be. (Yeow 2009, 162)

GoGwilt and Yeow’s studies show that images of the Malaysian landscape do inform how the “East” appears to Western minds and its transmission to Western readers through the novel and short stories. This paper also adds to the available literature an examination of images of Malaysia in works by colonial and postcolonial British writers besides Joseph Conrad, who has so far received the most attention from scholars.

To conclude, this paper emphasizes the significance of representations of space in the production of knowledge about Malaysia by the British in their literary texts. The archetypal framework of criticism has not been applied before to studies on images of Malaysia produced by British writers; this approach is relevant considering the recurrence of the garden archetype in travel writing. The works of lesser-known British writers will also be examined, since scholarly focus on Joseph Conrad tends to overshadow his contemporaries and those who wrote in the postcolonial period.


Images of Malaysia in the novels and short stories chosen for this study are analyzed through the frameworks of archetypal literary criticism and colonial rhetoric to reveal the worlding of Malaysia via the garden archetype. Gayatri Spivak defines worlding as the process of “Europe . . . consolidat[ing] itself as sovereign subject by defining its colonies as ‘Others’” (Spivak 1999, 199). Worlding and writing are related in that writings about colonized regions produce a fictional version of the space represented (ibid., 203). Using the example of India’s representation by British colonizers, Spivak examines the production of knowledge about India in archival material about the Rani of Sirmur. She proposes that worlding involves several strategies: the investment of authority in the white, male subject and author as the “custodian of truth” (ibid., 205), the rewriting of colonized space as “empty” in order to enable the colonizer’s truth and ideology to prevail (Spivak 1985; 1999), and the redefinition or at times, rejection, of pre-existing native information and sources (Spivak 1999, 228).

Worlding theorizes representation as a textual act, focusing on the role of writing and textual material—specifically, historical and archival texts—in producing knowledge of colonized peoples and regions. Archival material is dissected for its gaps, silences, and slippages in order to highlight the discourse of history as an agent of worlding. It is relevant to this study because it explains how representation works through the written word. The selected novels and short stories are the textual materials that produce a certain body of knowledge or fiction of Malaysia, while at the same time erasing the meanings already given to Malaysia by its indigenous inhabitants. This paper will emphasize the role of the garden archetype as an additional dimension in worlding Malaysia.

First, the portrayal of Malaysia in images invoking the garden archetype will be examined through the frameworks of colonial rhetoric on space outlined by Spurr (1993) and Nayar (2008). Spurr (1993) proposed the following rhetorical tropes that can be applied to readings of spatial representations: surveillance, appropriation, eroticization, debasement, negation, and insubstantialization. Nayar (2008) suggested these tropes: the social monstrous, the imperial sublime, the missionary picturesque, and the sporting luxuriant. For this study, a slight modification has been made to the last two of Nayar’s rhetorical tropes in order to widen their scope—the picturesque and the luxuriant.7)

Next, the role of the garden archetype in representing Malaysia is examined. Worlding, as explained earlier, is a process of representation (or misrepresentation) that purports to portray reality according to the colonizer’s own ideology and vision of truth (Spivak 1999). Similarly, the representation of Malaysia by the British through variations on the garden archetype establishes a certain view of Malaysia that is filtered through colonial ideology. Therefore, the images in the selected literary texts will be examined to determine if the following acts of worlding occur:

• The representation of Malaysia through archetypal imagery (that is, the garden) inflected with colonial rhetoric

• The representation of Malaysia as “empty” of all except the white man/woman

• The representation of the white man/woman, whether the author or his characters, as “the sovereign subject of information” (ibid., 217) vis-à-vis the native subject

Before moving on to the analysis of images, this paper briefly discusses what the garden symbolizes in the Malay world, in order to outline what preceded and then coexisted with images of Malaysia in Western narratives. The following is a brief summary of the garden according to the Malays as it appears in their language and literature, followed by an overview of Western notions of the garden archetype.

The Garden in the Malay World and in the West

The garden is a significant icon that has appeared in the religious and secular literatures of the Malays for centuries. A pre-Islamic notion of a paradise-garden for those who are righteous and obey God is evident in the inclusion of the Sanskrit word sorga meaning “heaven” or “paradise” in the Malay language (Malay: syurga). As for secular literature, some Malay hikayat8) feature garden-like magical kingdoms known by the generic term kayangan. Virginia Hooker cites an example of such a garden of pleasure, called taman ghairat in Hikayat Indraputra, “encircled with a trellised fence of copper with golden gates, trees fashioned from precious gems, bathing places, golden peacocks, verse-­singing birds, performing fish, pavilions carpeted with sumptuous rugs, golden thrones and nymphs providing food and drinks” (Hooker 2009, 341).

Images of the garden in the Qur’an are also integral to an understanding of the Malay worldview of this space prior to the coming of Europeans in the sixteenth century. Being the first source of reference for Muslim Malays and influential in their literature, the Qur’an contains many descriptions of a garden-like paradise with “rivers flowing beneath.” Below are some examples of Qur’anic verses about paradise:

Would any of you like to have a garden of palm trees and vines, with rivers flowing underneath it, with all kinds of fruit for him therein. (Al-Qur’an 2: 266)

Whoso obeyeth Allah and His messenger, He will make him enter Gardens underneath which rivers flow, where such will dwell forever. (Al-Qur’an 4: 13)

And We have placed therein gardens of the date-palm and grapes, and We have caused springs of water to gush forth therein. (Al-Qur’an 36: 34)9)

The Islamic paradise is a garden for the righteous who obeyed Allah and His prophet, where pleasure is a reward for faith and good conduct.10) This is subsequently incor­porated into Malay literary texts to reinforce the value of piety and education. In her article, Virginia Hooker (2009) traces the uses of the Islamic garden image in the ­Indonesian parts of the Malay world as a literary metaphor denoting good conduct, the ­exemplary behavior of kings, and as a model for religious education. Nuruddin al-Raniri’s Bustan al-Salatin [The Garden of Sultans], commissioned in 1638, is an Islamic manual of good conduct and administration for the Sultans of Aceh (ibid., 344) that uses the title bustan (Arabic: garden; Persian: garden, orchard) as a literary metaphor; it also includes a description of the Aceh royal garden, “a garden of delight which reminds Muslims of the wondrous nature of God the Creator and includes a mosque where ­religious duties may be performed” (ibid., 345). Raja Ali Haji’s Bustan al-Katibin (c. 1840s), a text prescribing good and pious conduct among Malay rulers and administrators employs the same ­metaphor while in present-day Indonesia, the word taman (Malay: garden) has been incorporated in an Islamic education program for primary schoolchildren (ibid., 351).

In short, the garden carries a positive resonance in the Malay world, associated with eternal bliss, reward for piety, and superior moral conduct. This percolates into the Malays’ living spaces as well. In the sixteenth century, Duarte Barbosa observed that the Malays of Malacca lived in “large houses outside the city with many orchards, gardens and tanks, where they lead a pleasant life” (Barbosa [1518] 1967, 176). Similarly, Frank Swettenham (1993) describes well-planned Malay kampong with fruit trees and decorative shrubs laid out like miniature gardens.

The Jungian archetypal framework lists a variety of garden images, showing the many different meanings and situations in which the archetype appears to the European collective unconscious. Northrop Frye outlines its various incarnations in Western litera­ture: (1) as the garden of paradise, it is the manifestation of human desires, expressed by shaping the vegetable world into gardens, parks, and farms; (2) in demonic imagery, the corresponding garden images are the “sinister enchanted garden like that of Circe . . . the tree of death, the tree of forbidden knowledge in Genesis, the barren fig-tree of the Gospels, and the cross” (Frye 1990, 149) as well as “the labyrinth or maze” (ibid., 150). These images portray a world “before the human imagination begins to work on it and before any image of human desire, such as the city or the garden, has been solidly established” (ibid., 147). The garden of the world of romance, or the “analogy of innocence” (ibid., 151), includes the Garden of Eden—Frye cites images from the Bible, Milton, and Dante—and the locus amoenus as examples. However, the garden is not as prominent in “high mimetic imagery” or the “analogy of nature and reason” (ibid., 153); it appears, for instance, as “formal gardens in close association with buildings” (ibid.) such as palaces, houses, and cities. Finally, in “low mimetic imagery” or the “analogy of experience” (ibid., 154), the garden is associated with human toil and labor—indicative of the common experiences of mankind—and is represented in literature by farms.

The German Jungian critic Erich Neumann (1963) has written about the link between the garden, fertility rituals, and female deities in many cultures in the world, indicating the feminine aspect that this archetype can take. In her dissertation on the symbolism of the garden in ancient texts, the Bible, and apocalyptic literature, Susan Lau outlines its importance as a symbol of fertility, life, and as a means of “reveal[ing] the transcendent or the sacred in and to the profane world” (Lau 1981, 326). Elsewhere, Christopher McIntosh (2005), taking a leaf out of the Jungian approach, elaborates on the multifarious meanings of the garden archetype in Europe: as a symbol of paradise and as human interpretations of the seasonal cycle and spiritual journeys.

The garden archetype also appears in British fiction about Malaysia throughout the colonial and postcolonial periods. Joseph Conrad’s fiction, here represented by his 1896 novel An Outcast of the Islands, inaugurates the tradition of portraying Borneo bearing the influence of the Romantic literary tradition, with its emphasis on the sublime. He is followed by William Somerset Maugham (1926), in whose short stories the garden archetype takes on the Victorian virtues of order and discipline in an attempt to control the destructive instincts of white men and women marooned in the tropics. Anthony Burgess’ Malaya in Time for a Tiger (1956) then is represented as the barren, dried-up garden, devoid of fertility and beauty, as if the death of Great Britain’s empire in the region also sounds the death knell for civilization as the West knows it.

The postcolonial period sees a waning interest in Malaysia in the British literary world. Few British writers have emerged to rival Conrad, Maugham, and Burgess, and the task of writing about Malaysia seems to have fallen onto the shoulders of young Malaysians based in Europe such as Preeta Samarasan and Tash Aw. The chosen texts represent some of the British fiction on Malaysia available today: Borneo Fire (1995) by William Riviere is an “ecothriller” (Kerridge 2000, 245) about the devastation of ­Sarawak’s rainforests by logging and forest fires; while Fool’s Gold (2004) is written by Frederick Lees, a former officer in the colonial British administration of Malaya whose long experience during the Emergency (1948–60) is reflected in the novel. In Borneo Fire, the garden archetype is invoked in visions of a lost Eden that needs to be recovered, while in Fool’s Gold, we see a return to the Romantic vision of nature first employed by Conrad.

The Garden Archetype in Colonial British Fiction

Lust/Lost in the Garden of Eden: The Romantic Garden of Joseph Conrad’s “An Outcast of the Islands”

Joseph Conrad’s An Outcast of the Islands ([1896] 2002, henceforth AO) has as its subject a lonely exile meeting and falling for a beautiful but dangerous woman in his wanderings. Peter Willems, a Dutch trader in Maluku, is condemned to wander, Odysseus-like, in Sambir, a remote trading outpost located on the northeastern coast of Borneo.11) Like Odysseus, he encounters in Sambir an enchantress figure, Aïssa, the daughter of the old Arab “pirate” chief Omar al Badavi. They begin a passionate but ultimately destructive affair, and used by the Malays as pawns in a political game pitting the European traders (consisting of Captain Tom Lingard and his protégés Almayer and Willems) against the Arab merchant Abdulla. Willems and Aïssa lose their trust for each other, exemplifying Kipling’s adage that East and West shall never meet.

In Borneo’s vastness and lush forests, Conrad found a geophysical setting that lent itself well to that aesthetic value definitive of the Romantic literary movement—the sublime. The sublime is defined by its original proponent, Edmund Burke, as “[w]hatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror” (2001). It is in addition an aesthetics that values emotive descriptions of nature, vastness, obscurity, darkness, and gloom. The rhetoric of the sublime had already appeared in English travel writing on India from around 1750 to 1820 (Nayar 2008). “The aesthetics of the sublime, circulating in England around the mid-eighteenth century,” according to Nayar, “suggested an aesthetic framework for the [English] travelers. An aesthetics of terror and vastness, darkness and obscurity, danger and challenge . . .” (ibid., 64–65). On the other side of the world, in South America, the German explorer, ­Alexander von Humboldt, similarly wrote of nature’s magnificence and sublimity in language reminiscent of the Romantic writers (Pratt 1992). This Romantic attitude also emphasized “drama, struggle and a certain sensuality” (ibid., 121) in any description of geospatial features.

While Willems and Aïssa’s first encounter in Sambir is depicted in the iconography of Adam and Eve’s first meeting in the Garden of Eden, this is done in the Romantic mold. Willems, lonely and bored in his new surroundings, decides to take a short trip up the river to explore the land for “some solitary spot where he could hide his discouragement and his weariness” (AO, 52). He sees no other human being on his early excursions. Sambir is all his own, making Willems the solitary Romantic hero, whom John F. Danby aptly describes as “a monolithic figure in an empty landscape . . . the metaphysical ‘I’ . . . which insulates us and yet is the very means whereby we have communion with things and with other I’s” (Danby 2000, 49). This also affirms the worlding of Borneo by the white colonizer, who inserts himself as an authority on the region by his claims to know Borneo in a landscape strangely empty of other human beings.

The scene of Willems’ first glimpse of Aïssa takes place in a garden-like space similar to the locus amoenus, a “space for sensual enjoyment” (McIntosh 2005, 51) familiar to medieval and Renaissance literature, thus briefly departing from the usual gloom of the Romantic atmosphere. Willems happens to discover a path beside the river one day that seems to be well-worn, and which he believes would lead him somewhere interesting. The path runs beside a brook; following it, he arrives in a clearing where “the confused tracery of sunlight fell through the branches and the foliage overhead, and lay on the stream that shone in an easy curve like a bright swordblade dropped amongst the long and feathery grass” (AO, 53). The brook is an important element in garden imagery for its evocation of fertility, while its sword-like “curve” foreshadows the sinuous form of the female figure; this and fertility are significant motifs in the locus amoenus. The sunlight and trees enhance the reader’s sense of touch (warmth on skin) and sight (the green leaves, the play of light and shadow), heightening the anticipation of the moment when man and woman would first lay eyes on each other.

Conrad projects onto Aïssa’s body the archetype of the garden, so that landscape and woman are fused together:

 She had taken up her burden already, with the intention of pursuing her path. His sudden movement arrested her at the first step, and again she stood straight, slim, expectant, with a readiness to dart away suggested in the light immobility of her pose. High above, the branches of the trees met in a transparent shimmer of waving green mist, through which the rain of yellow rays descended upon her head, streamed in glints down her black tresses, shone with the changing glow of liquid metal on her face, and lost itself in vanishing sparks in the somber depth of her eyes that, wide open now, with enlarged pupils, looked steadily at the man in her path. (AO, 54)

In projecting the elements of the landscape onto the physical body of the Other woman, Conrad is deploying the familiar colonial rhetoric of “eroticization,” which David Spurr defines as “a set of rhetorical instances—metaphors, seductive fantasies, expressions of sexual anxiety—in which the traditions of colonialist and phallocentric discourses coincide” (Spurr 1993, 170). However, it is equally important to acknowledge that imagery also plays a significant role in the eroticization of Borneo, and that this instance from Conrad’s novel illustrates how the garden archetype is used to mark the sexual attraction of both protagonists. The garden is an appropriately representative site and symbol for this to take place because of the sexual connotations of fertile earth, the sowing of seeds, springs and other water features, growth and maturity into flower and fruit. No less important is the “hortusconclusus,” the woman’s body as enclosed garden, “derived from the Song of Songs” (Frye 1990, 152) suggested by Conrad’s description of Aïssa.

Between the first meeting of Willems and Aïssa and the moment they became pawns in Babalatchi’s game pitting the Europeans against the Arabs, the image of the locus amoenus is predominant. This initial encounter, however, gradually descends from the heights of passion to destructive extremes of love and hate as Conrad draws out an important lesson from Willems and Aïssa’s doomed relationship: that the two worlds, the East and the West, cannot coexist in the same sphere. To be specific, the relationship is impossible because the female Other is a negative force whose influence is literally deadly to the white male colonizer, for “[T]he colonized territory represents not only sexual promise, but sexual danger as well” (Spurr 1993, 177). In this context, the garden takes on a more sinister image than seemed. The benign aspect is actually deceptive, illusory. In reality, Sambir is the magic garden of the enchantress (Frye 1990, 149), the domain of the beautiful but deadly female memorably described by the Romantics such as John Keats in his poem “La belle dame sans merci.” It is then that the aesthetics of the sublime asserts itself in Conrad’s images of Sambir.

The sensuality of Willems and Aïssa’s relationship, as mentioned earlier, owes itself to the repeated imagery of the locus amoenus. As their love deteriorates into obsession and the locus amoenus fades from view, it is replaced by the overtly sexual image of parasitic creepers clinging to trees (Hawthorn 2006, 232), invoking a sense of the sublime:

Slowly she raised her arms, put them over his shoulders, and clasping her hands at the back of his neck, swung off the full length of her arms. Her head fell back, the eyelids dropped slightly, and her thick hair hung straight down: a mass of ebony touched by the red gleams of the fire. He stood unyielding under the strain, as solid and motionless as one of the big trees of the surrounding forests; and his eyes looked at the modeling of her chin, at the outline of her neck, at the swelling lines of her bosom, with the famished and concentrated expression of a starving man looking at food. She drew herself up to him and rubbed her head against his cheek slowly and gently. He sighed. (AO, 109, italics my own)

The lush, forested landscape of Sambir now manifests the overwhelming desire that Willems and Aïssa have for each other. The image of Aïssa’s mass of hair and Willems standing still and strong like one of the trees in the forest recall a garden of sensual delights darker than the one implied by the locus amoenus. Here is the Romantic garden “powered by life forces many of which are invisible to the human eye; a nature that dwarfs humans, commands their being, arouses their passions, defies their powers of perception” (Pratt 1992, 120). It is a fitting geophysical setting for a love that has progressed into extremes of anger, jealousy, and revenge in the style of Wuthering Heights (1847).

The deployment of the garden archetype through allusions to the locus amoenus, the rhetoric of eroticization that accompanies it, and the rhetoric of the sublime in which the landscape is depicted, turns Borneo into a setting for the sexual adventures of the colonizer. The worlding in Conrad’s novel also relies on the colonizer representing himself as an authority in defining the landscape (Spivak 1999, 213), as seen in the depiction of Willems exploring the jungles of Sambir on his own.

None of the vestiges of this Romantic vision of the garden, however, remains in later British fiction with a Malaysian setting. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, it has given way to an orderly, disciplined garden after the Victorian worldview. The lushness, extreme emotions, passions, and invisible forces at work in Conrad’s portraits of Borneo are by then reined in by the carefully tended garden of the Victorian Age. Nonetheless, the darker forces of human instinct continue to threaten the boundaries of this garden, as Somerset Maugham’s stories amply illustrate.

Vice and Virtue in the Garden of Eden: British Borneo as the Disciplined Garden

British Malaya and Borneo at the time of Maugham’s sojourn there between 1921 and 1922 and a second trip in 1925–26 (Holden 1996, 95) was not far from the archetypal garden that European travel writers turned to time and again throughout five centuries when describing the region. Malaya in the 1920s enjoyed the economic prosperity that came with being the world’s top producer of rubber and tin. The landscape was dotted with orderly rubber plantations resembling English estates (ibid., 98) and presided over by verdant rainforests. Meanwhile, the British carved out retreats in the cool highlands where flowers and fruits familiar to them at home thrived in the lower temperatures (Aiken 1994, 3). The peace and stability of life for the British in Malaya and Borneo before the Great Depression in 1929 that caused tin and rubber prices to plunge added to the sense of living in an enclosed and orderly space—much like being in a beautiful garden protected from the elements by high walls.

One sees in Maugham’s images of orderly rows of rubber trees in well-tended plantations, along with picturesque riverside outposts, echoes of the garden archetype that dominates European discourse on colonized spaces in Latin America (Pratt 1992) and South Africa (Low 1996). The garden with its concomitant meanings—a space for peace and tranquility, and a mirror image of paradise (McIntosh 2005, 36)—is the perfect archetype for a region known to the British then for its excellent economic prospects and its natural beauty. And unlike Conrad’s sensual and overwhelming garden, Maugham’s is restrained and disciplined; it appears as the neat lawns and gardens of British homes and residencies, and as rubber plantations. These well-kept spaces are geophysical manifestations of the still-prevailing Victorian virtues of self-control and an irreproachable moral conduct.

However, in Maugham’s stories, this semblance of a disciplined garden is more often than not broken by shocking acts of sexual and social transgressions by the British themselves (Holden 1996, 114). Murder, adultery, and interracial liaisons between white men and native women undermine British efforts to create an Eden in the tropics. Such representations are instances of Maugham’s worlding of British Borneo by reinscribing it (Spivak 1999, 211) as a space for the re-enactment of the fall of mankind from a state of bliss into a sinful existence. This simultaneously requires the erasure of pre-existing notions of the garden among the native population of British Borneo. My reading of Maugham’s short fiction also proposes that the rhetoric of debasement (Spurr 1993, 76) operating in Maugham’s narratives contributes to the worlding of the land. This is apparent in images of Borneo’s geophysical features as contaminating white men and women with the deadly sins of wrath, lust, and envy, among others.

It is worth noting that Maugham’s preoccupation with exposing the hidden sins and vices of his countrymen in Borneo reflects the conflicted Victorian attitude towards morality—one revolving around simultaneous attraction/repulsion—as well as pre­vailing pseudoscientific attitudes towards race and physical environment (ibid., 80). In his ­stories about British Borneo, Maugham erases the positive meanings of the garden archetype already existing among the peoples of Borneo from the landscape. Instead, Borneo’s garden-like façade is represented as a cover for the undercurrents of evil and degeneration running below the surface. These dark urges seduce the white man or woman into committing acts that go against solid Victorian values of family and decency, so that adultery, murder, and treachery seem like everyday occurrences in Maugham’s Borneo.12)

Three stories in The Casuarina Tree ([1926] 2005) feature the fictional state of Sembulu—a thinly-disguised Sarawak—whose delightful rural landscape remind each protagonist of the Garden of Eden. Two of these stories will be discussed together because of the similarities in plot and characters. In “Before the Party” and “The Force of Circumstance,” two British women travel to Sembulu for the first time as brides of colonial officers stationed there. After a short period of domestic bliss, both women discover their husbands’ dark secrets: one is an alcoholic while the other has had a liaison with a Malay woman prior to marriage.

Maugham’s representation of Borneo’s geospatial features in these two stories first foregrounds the positive garden archetype as paradise on earth as well as the bower suggestive of domestic harmony. The women are enchanted by their first sight of Sembulu. There are shades of Eden in the following excerpt from “Before the Party” (henceforth “BP”):

She [Millicent] thought of those first months of her married life. The Government launch took them to the mouth of the river and they spent the night at the bungalow which Harold said jokingly was their seaside residence. Next day they went up-stream in a prahu. From the novels she had read she expected the rivers of Borneo to be dark and strangely sinister, but the sky was blue, dappled with little white clouds, and the green of the mangroves and the nipas, washed by the flowing water, glistened in the sun. On each side stretched the pathless jungle, and in the distance, silhouetted against the sky, was the rugged outline of a mountain. The air in the early morning was fresh and buoyant. She seemed to enter upon a friendly, fertile land, and she had a sense of spacious freedom. They watched the banks for monkeys sitting on the branches of the tangled trees and once Harold pointed out something that looked like a log and said it was a crocodile. (“BP,” 31)

Millicent’s panoramic view (Pratt 1992) of Sembulu presents the reader with images invoking the garden—a lush landscape fed by a river, exotic wildlife, and clear blue skies. Interestingly, she feels “a sense of spacious freedom” in Sembulu. This hints at the restrictions that she faced as a woman in Britain, but also establishes her as a figure of authority who assumes the right of defining Borneo for others through her surveillance of its space. Through the power of the written word, Maugham consolidates his voice (via the figure of the white woman) as the authority on colonized space (Spivak 1999, 234).

Similarly, Doris, the protagonist in “The Force of Circumstance” (henceforth “FC”) is ecstatic at the delightful sights that greet her upon her arrival in Sembulu. Once again, the land appeared “friendly rather than awe-inspiring” (“FC,” 159). Doris’ imagination is free to roam the open vistas like Adam and Eve in their garden: “[s]he had no sense of confinement nor of gloom, but rather of openness and wide spaces where the exultant fancy could wander with delight” (“FC,” 159). The abundant greenery and wildlife, coupled with obedient natives waiting to ferry her to her new home, are all reminiscent of the Edenic idyll where the concepts of work and labor do not exist.

While the garden that is Sembulu offers the women freedom from the restrictions of the motherland, other “freedoms” that would contaminate solid Victorian values of family and decency are lurking underneath the surface. At this point in both stories, Sembulu’s potential for corruption is still carefully concealed from view. Only the cunning crocodile that, Serpent-like,13) appeared to Millicent’s untrained eyes as a log, hints at the illusory quality of the images that she is enjoying and her husband’s moral downfall.

According to David Spurr (1993, 80–81), one of the manifestations of the rhetoric of debasement in colonial discourse is the transposing of individual instances of abjection among the colonized onto the population as well as onto geophysical space. Debasement lies behind the pseudoscientific belief in the nineteenth century that the climate of Africa or Asia can cause the European to lose his/her self-control and judgment. The rhetoric of debasement “invokes an ancient repertoire of images denoting evil and foreboding apocalyptic destruction” such as “[d]ark, enclosed spaces, infestation, contamination, sexual and moral degradation” (ibid., 90). That geophysical space can also be contaminated by individual sin, filth, and degradation of character is evident in the two women’s husbands, whose inability to rein in their baser instincts occurs in an environment that “encourages” sinful behavior. One of Borneo’s seemingly corrupting influences that captured Maugham’s imagination was the practice among colonial officers in Sarawak of taking local women as mistresses. In view of the very few white women in Sarawak at that time, this was deemed a necessary measure until the officers eventually found suitable British or white women to marry. The practice raised the specter of miscegenation and was particularly abhorred by British women (Brooke 1970, 81).14) It is a perfect example of how the European’s fear of contamination operates on several levels, “social and psychological as well as biological” (Spurr 1993, 87). The women’s discovery of their husbands’ transgressions raises the fear of social, psychological, and biological pollution. However, neither are white women spared the degeneration of character that comes with living in Borneo: in “Before the Party,” Millicent too falls victim to Sembulu’s environment by exemplifying the sin of wrath—she murders her husband in a fit of rage after discovering that he was still drinking despite her efforts to reform him.

In their domestic routine, both women attempt to re-create the state of bliss suggested by their first impressions of Sembulu: breakfast at dawn, work, lunch, afternoon siesta, evening drinks, reading the mail, golf or tennis, and meeting other expatriate British men and women at the club. After all, the garden is a pleasant space only if it is regularly tended to; the order and discipline the memsahibs imposed on their husbands’ lives as well as theirs are the means with which they attempted to maintain that ideal. The manicured lawns of British homes also reaffirm Victorian ideals of morality, which must be upheld at all costs. Despite this vigilance, the region’s propensity for bringing out the white man’s darkest instincts cannot be kept at bay. There is the oppressive heat and also the surrounding jungles that represent “the forces of dissolution that wait outside” (Holden 1996, 98), or perhaps more accurately, within the garden that Sarawak appears as to Maugham’s protagonists as well as to his readers. This archetype Maugham puts to full use in “The Outstation” (henceforth “TO”), where he addresses the rivalry between two colonial officers and its tragic consequences.

Mr. Warburton, the Resident of Sembulu, gets a new assistant, Allen Cooper. They are a mismatched pair: Warburton is a middle-class Eton man and Cooper, a “colonial” born in the Barbados and a foot soldier in the Boer War. They soon discover a mutual hatred for each other. Cooper’s blatant racism and superior attitude towards his Malay servants also gets on Warburton’s nerves, himself ever courteous and respectful (if also condescending) towards them. After a quarrel over Cooper’s abusive behavior towards Abas, Cooper’s house-boy, Warburton finds himself wishing for Cooper’s convenient death. He resolves to do nothing, waiting for the time when the opportunity would present itself. Warburton’s wish is finally granted when Abas kills Cooper after having been wrongfully dismissed from his job.

“The Outstation” is a classic parable of the sins of wrath, envy, and fratricide. Despite the seeming innocence and tranquility of Sembulu’s geophysical setting, a palpable sense of menace can be felt in the air. It is only too easy for Warburton to be seduced into ceding to his baser instincts in such an environment, Maugham says, for “[n]one knew better than Mr. Warburton how irritable the incessant heat could make a man and how difficult it was to keep one’s self-control after a sleepless night” (“TO,” 133). Initially, however, Maugham cultivates the positive meanings of the garden archetype—in the story it appears as an arbor for Warburton to rejuvenate his spirits in the contemplation of nature’s beauty—before swiftly unmasking the setting to reveal the evil that it conceals:

 He [Warburton] strolled down his garden. The Fort was built on the top of a little hill and the garden ran down to the river’s edge; on the bank was an arbour, and hither it was his habit to come after dinner to smoke a cheroot. And often from the river that flowed below him a voice was heard, the voice of some Malay too timorous to venture into the light of day, and a complaint or an accusation was softly wafted to his ears, a piece of information was whispered to him or a useful hint, which otherwise would never have come into his official ken. (“TO,” 111)

The riverside arbor first signals tranquility and acts as Warburton’s own secret space where his worldly cares can be temporarily forgotten. Yet here too, treacherous voices whisper into his ears, delivering secret information likely gained through underhanded means. The similarity between this image and that in the Old Testament of Eve’s temptation by the Devil disguised as a serpent, sibilating the secrets of the Tree of Knowledge into her ears, is part of the “ancient repertoire of images denoting evil” in colonial discourse (Spurr 1993, 90). It is as if, despite the control that the British attempted to impose on the tropical landscape through their visions of disciplined gardens, the “natural” propensity of the environment for encouraging vice and corruption in human beings keeps battering down the walls erected to keep them out.

Maugham’s representation of Borneo relies on pseudoscientific beliefs in the ability of foreign environments to pollute the inherent characteristics of white people, part of the colonial rhetoric of debasement (ibid.). The disciplined garden therefore reveals the extent of the colonizer’s fear of contamination by Malaysia’s geophysical environment. The archetype can also be read as the colonial writer’s imposition of his own ideology about the region, which readers are expected to accept as the truth (Spivak 1985, 254).

Maugham’s portraits of a tamed garden threatened by moral and social degeneration pave the way for the next incarnation of the garden archetype in colonial British fiction: the garden made barren by the demise of Western civilization from Malaya and Borneo after the Second World War. This was Burgess’ vision of the garden at the time of his service in Malaya in the late 1950s. If the Victorian garden of Maugham’s stories is blighted with hidden sins and corruption, for Burgess the disease is full-blown, showing itself in Malaya as instances of decay and filth everywhere evident in the landscape.

The Barren Garden of Muslim Malaya in Anthony Burgess’ “Time for a Tiger”

Conrad and Maugham’s archetypal representations of Malaya as the garden that leads to the downfall of positive European values set in motion a tradition for portraying the region as a fallen Eden in later British writers. One work that encapsulates this tradition at a later period of British colonial rule in Malaya is Anthony Burgess’ 1956 novel Time for a Tiger (henceforth TFT). Published on the cusp of Malaya’s independence from British rule (it would formally become independent in 1957), Burgess’ novel is a late colonial-era representative of British fiction concerning Malaya.

Conrad and Maugham’s use of the garden archetype represents Malaysia as an ­idyllic but corrupting space, achieved by invoking the imagery of Romanticism and ­Victorian notions of order. Burgess, on the other hand, invokes the barren garden to illustrate a cynicism towards Islam and its manifestations in Malay culture and attitudes. His worlding of Malaya involves the inversion of the garden’s symbolism in Islam and reinscribing over it a landscape marked by deformities and aberrations as well as by instances of filth and contamination. This echoes Conrad and Maugham’s treatments to a certain degree; it also reminds one of representations in European travel writing (for instance, de Vellez Guerreiro 1732; Bird 1883) that portray Malaysia in the context of a region whose landscape is literally tainted by the sins and false worship of the Muslims.15)

The significance of the garden archetype in Islam and to the Malays has been explained earlier. In Islam, the garden is significant as the form of Paradise in the Hereafter; see, for instance, the Qur’an (2: 266 and 4: 13). Burgess is familiar with Malays and Islam, having spent six years in Malaya (1954–60) as an officer in the colonial education service (Burgess 2000, vii). He studied Malay and the Jawi script (Habibah 1969, cited in Zawiah 2003, 163–164), and was attracted to Islam (Zawiah 2003, 175). Despite his obvious interest in Malay culture and Islam, his portraits of Malaya in Time for a Tiger are not very flattering. His images of Muslim Malaya are inscribed within a combination of various rhetorical tropes of colonial discourse on landscape—what Pramod Nayar (2008, 42) articulates as the rhetoric of the monstrous, and Spurr’s (1993, 76) theory of debasement. This effectively erases the connection between Malaya and the archetypal garden of Paradise, thus disavowing the positive impacts Islam has had on the region. Taken together, these images suggest a continuity in British writers’ negativity towards the Islamic heritage from the early days of their arrival to the formal end of their rule as implied in narratives on Malaysia’s physical landscape.

Kuala Hantu,16) the setting for Burgess’ narrative of British men and women in a rapidly decolonizing world, is central to the inversion of the garden archetype. In naming the town Kuala Hantu—meaning “the estuary of ghosts” in English—he already indicates the irreverence with which Malaya would be treated. The reader’s introduction to the town proceeds on the same note of derision:

. . . Soon the bilal [muezzin] could be heard, calling over the dark. The bilal, old and crotchety, had climbed the worm-gnawed minaret, had paused a while at the top, panting, and then intoned his first summons to prayer, the first waktu [prayer time] of the long indifferent day.
“La ilahailla’llah. La ilahailla’llah.”
 There is no God but God, but what did anybody care? Below and about him was dark. And the dark shrouded the bungalow of the District Officer, the two gaudy cinemas, the drinking-shops where the towkays snored on their pallets, the Istana [palace]—empty now, for the Sultan was in Bangkok with his latest Chinese dance-hostess, the Raja Perempuan [the Queen Consort] at Singapore for the race-meetings—and the dirty, drying river.
“La ilahailla’lah.” . . .
 God knoweth best. Allahualam. The nether fires awaited such, a hot house in naraka [hell]. Not for them the Garden with the river flowing beneath. He looked down on the blackness, trying to pierce it with his thin voice, seeking to irradiate with the Word the opacity of Kuala Hantu. (TFT, 11–12)

Burgess’ choice of the Islamic “Garden with the river flowing beneath,” in other words, Paradise, to contrast with this decadent town and its dissipated inhabitants, could only have been deliberate. Instead of a garden, we encounter Kuala Hantu at dawn enveloped by darkness. The dark is indicative of its mainly Muslim inhabitants’ spiritual corruption—drinking, womanizing, and gambling seem to be their favorite pastimes, from the Sultan down to the ordinary haji. The lifeless river that flows “beneath” Kuala Hantu is another geophysical marker of the town’s degeneration. Like Maugham’s Sembulu, Kuala Hantu’s Edenic façade is polluted with sin, although Burgess represents it in his novel as a physical manifestation of the Malays’ corrupted nature rather than of Malaya’s natural propensity to wear down European strength of character. Burgess’ Malaya is a garden in which the forces of life and beauty are gone and only a wasteland or abandoned garden can be discerned.

Other targets of Burgess’ derision for Muslim Malaya include the mosque, whose domes are “as bulbous as a clutch of onions” (TFT, 26), and “the great Hollywood vision of Baghdad, the vast vulgar floodlit Istana” (TFT, 97). These edifices, together with the town’s cinemas and drinking shops, emphasize the rhetoric of the monstrous (Nayar 2008, 42) at work in the garden archetype. The rhetoric of the monstrous operates by a displacement of individual instances of deformity onto the population and its social structures:

Troping the Indian body or the Indian religious procession as strange and/or deformed, the English traveler often folds or shades the monstrous into the grotesque. The latter [the grotesque] . . . located deformity as a social phenomenon. It orders Indian people, monarchy, bodies and events into the category of the unnatural to create . . . the “social monstrous.” The “monstrosities” perceived in Indian bodies . . . were portents of the imminent decay of Indian culture and civilization. (ibid.)

This is the same way in which the rhetoric of debasement (Spurr 1993, 90) operates in colonial discourse. These tropes are evident in Burgess’ description of the mosque’s deformed “bulbous” domes and the “vulgar” Arabian Nights fantasy that is the palace—a case of architecture signifying the land’s degeneration into the single-minded pursuit of sensual gratification. In this reading, geophysical markers act, like the human bodies of the land’s inhabitants, as indicators of its moral and civilizational decay. The mon­strosity of the mosque and palace thus contributes to the representation of Malaya as a perverse version of the Garden of Paradise.

Burgess had better knowledge of Islam and of the Malays than most of his fellow officers. In this he can be considered as part of the corps of “experts” on Malaya, including Thomas Stamford Raffles, Frank Swettenham, Hugh Clifford, and Richard Winstedt, who made the country and its people objects of their study. However, Burgess resorts to images already employed by his predecessors who themselves came to acquire that “knowledge” through the platform of colonialism, which necessitates a superior attitude towards native sources of information. Gayatri Spivak (1999, 228) noted this in her essay on worlding: one of its strategies is to deny authoritative status to pre-existing indigenous records of a country so that the right to speak and write about it lies solely in the hands of the colonizer. Burgess displays this in Time for a Tiger by appropriating the symbols familiar to Islam and the Malays only to negate them; this is made possible because the colonial writer has appropriated the right to write (and rewrite) Malaysia.

The garden archetype also figures significantly in Time for a Tiger’s cautionary message to white men and women of the very real danger of “going native” in Malaya. Both Victor Crabbe, the British schoolmaster posted in Kuala Hantu, and his wife Fenella are vulnerable to this danger; both are fascinated by Malaya, although to different degrees.17) Malaya’s threat is portrayed in several images overturning the positive meanings of the garden archetype in Malay culture. Its fertility is obscene rather than benign, and images of its excessive filth and monstrosity are everywhere apparent. The following description of the market is one such representation:

 The market was covered, dark and sweltering. Ibrahim had to mince delicately along foul aisles between rows of ramshackle stalls. Old women crouched over bags of Siamese rice, skeps of red and green peppers, purple eggplants, bristly rambutans, pineapples, durians. Flies buzzed over fish and among the meat bones, ravaged, that lay for the cats to gnaw. Here and there an old man slept on his stall with, for bedfellows, skinny dressed chickens or dried fish-strips. One ­vendor had pillowed his head on a washbowl full of bruised apples. Thin, pot-bellied Chinese blew ­cigarette-ash onto sheep carcases [sic] or tight white cabbages. The air was all smell—curry-stuff, durian, fish and flesh—and the noise was of hoicking and chaffering. Ibrahim loved the market. (TFT, 102)

At a glance, the portrayal of the market parallels the catalogues of edible plants, fruits, and animals produced by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Portuguese colonizers of Malacca in their travelogues. But where those early narratives articulated European fascination at Malacca’s fertility, Burgess’ only registers disgust. Images of rotting meat and fruit in the market, and the bones and animal carcasses hint at the unsavory aspect of life in Malaya should the white man or woman consider becoming part of the country. The durians, whose overpowering smell and taste remind one of “eating a sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory,” represent the “stink” of Malaya (TFT, 70), and the hoicking (sounds made when clearing one’s throat of phlegm) of the Chinese towkay is made out to be Malaya’s signature sound. This market scene presents a landscape marked by dirt, filth, and a perverse form of fertility—abundant but rotting fruits and vegetables—leading to the archetype of the barren garden.

The barren garden represents a British creative imagination grown weary and skeptical towards the Malayan landscape, starkly different from the sensual fear/desire that Conrad displayed towards the verdant space of Borneo. Maugham’s troubled Victorian garden image had foreshadowed this later disillusionment with its hints of the corruption that lay underneath the immaculate surface. It is as if the only fitting image to capture the spirit of those times—the end of the Empire, decolonization, the rise of independent nations in the Third World—is a shriveled, infertile garden reflecting the diminished potency of British influence in the world and a barely concealed distrust of the local sociopolitical entities that would replace the British in their former colonies.

The Garden in Postcolonial British Fiction

Recovering Eden: Representations of Sarawak in William Riviere’s “Borneo Fire”

William Riviere’s Borneo Fire (1995, henceforth BF) perhaps owes some inspiration to the nineteenth-century writings of James Brooke, since it also features geospatial depictions of Sarawak. Brooke was awed by the majesty of the rainforest but at the same time wished to see them tamed in order to make way for development (Keppel 1846, 18–19). Riviere’s characters, on the other hand, have inherited the consequences of Brooke’s vision of progress: indiscriminate logging and the resulting floods, forest fires, and the loss of wildlife and way of life of the indigenous tribes. Therefore the characters’ desire to save Sarawak’s forests becomes more urgent, and the image of a paradise on earth that had once been becomes the defining archetype in Riviere’s narrative. Two white men, Philip Blakeney and his son Hugh, stand at the center of this crusade to recover paradise from imminent destruction. The worlding of Malaysia occurs in this novel through the representation of Sarawak as paradise lost and the white, male protagonists as saviors and experts who possess the authority to produce knowledge about Sarawak (Subramaniam and Pillai 2009, 9).

Philip represents the older generation of Sarawak-born British, a former colonial officer who knew the country’s unspoiled beauty before the coming of the timber companies in the 1980s. Through his recollections, the reader gets glimpses of Arcadian spaces such as the one below:

. . . Long Kai where the stream flowed so cleanly you could see every fish flicker. Where the carved totem poles to commemorate the dead, called kapatongs, were still standing and had their magnificence. Where I heard an Argus pheasant call from the forest and they took me to search for it and we found the dancing ground they clear but we never saw the bird—who, for that matter, ever has? (BF, 93)

The tone is nostalgic, and towards the end, speaks of such scenes as mythical. Life is symbolized by the fish in the clear streams of the past, and beauty by the reclusive Argus pheasant whom no one has ever really seen. The wooden poles commemorating the dead signal the lives and traditions of a people closely entwined with that of their physical environment. But what his son, Hugh, and his adopted daughter, Cassandra have inherited instead is

. . . a wilderness of mud slides and broken trees and dust, a desert where the forest would not grow again, where the creatures and plants were gone forever, where the longhouses and their cultures were gone and no man would come back to plant rice and hunt deer . . . (BF, 83)

This is the background for the urgency of Hugh’s mission to save Sarawak’s rainforests from the fire devouring them. An environmental and political activist who has been to Burma and Timor, Hugh’s heroic stature at times reflect the hero of that other novel by Conrad, Lord Jim (1900). He is also an idealistic young man with a task to complete in the interior of Borneo, perpetually dressed in white,18) and with a half-white, half-Iban beauty,19) Cassandra, waiting for him to marry her once he has put out the fire.

In the island’s interior, Hugh finds Philip’s “garden of earthly delights” (BF, 93). This is the parts of the forest still untouched by fire, reminiscent of what Philip had once seen and known. Hugh writes to his father of the garden:

Rough travelling all day, one lot of rapids after another. But then we’d drift forward into a quiet green reach and it would look like heaven. Trees reflected in the clean river, creepers festooned, suspended orchids flowering, fish that jumped. Deep blue sky, small white cumulus clouds. Curve after curve of the sultry river opening before us and closing behind. We heard a hornbill’s laughter—not a common sound any more. A lot of kingfishers, they sit looking very brilliant on branches over the water, fly up as we go by. A superb country, a peaceful country—I could travel on and on, lose any wish to arrive anywhere. (BF, 189)

The scene is heavenly in a sensual way (“curve after curve of the sultry river,” “suspended orchids flowering”), marking the trope of eroticizing geospatial description often practiced by colonial writers (Spurr 1993, 170). Hugh’s desire to remain in the forest and not travel to a specific destination echoes the anaesthetizing effect of the Malaysian landscape on the traveler once described by Hugh Clifford (1897, 4).20) These residues of colonial discourse imply the strength of the garden archetype in the British creative imagination on Malaysia, surviving into the present.

Hugh’s goal and Philip’s wish are that this paradise be recovered and preserved from the evil forces threatening to destroy it, which were not “nebulous powers of darkness . . . battening on the great island” (BF, 215) but “organizations with names, men with names. The Sarawak Timber Association. The Japan Lumber Importers’ Association. What he [Hugh] called the Asian Progress Mafia Bank. The Sarawak Land Development Board . . .” (BF, 215). Their nostalgic renderings of an Edenic landscape now gone or in danger of extinction, while reflecting an awareness of Sarawak’s plight, also reflects a retrospective desire for the paradise of the past that colonial writers such as James Brooke, Isabella Bird, and Hugh Clifford had written so eloquently about. And when presented as a battle between good and evil over that paradise—Hugh, Philip, and their friends on one side; and the fire, the timber companies and corrupt politicians on the other—the archetypal symbols of heroes, villains, and quests come into play, so that Sarawak is reinscribed as a space for the white hero’s fulfillment of his destiny.

While Riviere reveals good knowledge of and sensitivity towards Sarawak’s environmental degradation, Philip and Hugh’s quest to preserve paradise in Sarawak at times come across as patronizing. As defenders of the forest, they speak about it in a patriarchal way. The prominence given to Philip and Hugh by the writer implies that leadership of the quest to restore Borneo’s rainforests naturally falls on the white men because they know more about the land than others do. Philip is an old Sarawak hand (to adopt a colonial term for such experts) while Hugh is a contemporary reincarnation of that colonial figure. Emphasis is given to his Oxford education and his encyclopaedic knowledge of Sarawak’s deforestation, strengthening the hero-crusader image (Subramaniam and Pillai 2009, 9). Hugh’s detailed knowledge of Sarawak also marks him as “the master [who is] the subject of science or knowledge” (Spivak 1999, 216) who invests himself with the authority to represent Malaysia to Malaysians as well as to others. As a result, the Garden of Eden that is to be recovered is subject to the two men’s vision.

Riviere’s postcolonial project of recovering Eden extends to other contemporary British writers, evident in another novel, Fool’s Gold (2004) by Frederick Lees. Visions of the garden from Malaysia’s colonial past also inform Lees’ narrative. What Lees revives is the wild, lush Romantic garden of Conrad, with an emphasis on the erotic connotations of the archetypal garden. In a different guise, the white man takes on narrative authority to represent the geospatial features of Malaysia.

Reviving the Romantic Garden: Frederick Lees’ Malaya in “Fool’s Gold” (2004)

As a novel written by a former colonial officer but published in the twenty-first century, Frederick Lees’ Fool’s Gold (2004, henceforth FG) sits astride the colonial and postcolonial time divide, enabling the question of whether colonial representations of Malaysia as the archetypal garden have survived or perhaps transmuted into something quite different. This novel’s approach to Malaysia’s geospatial features parallels Conrad’s worlding Malaysia as a site for the white male colonizer’s sexual awakening through contact with a desirable Other. Lees’ focus is, however, on homosexual love, portrayed in the attraction between the white protagonist, a British resettlement officer, and his Malay subordinate. The garden archetype, specifically a sensual Garden of Eden, albeit one without Eve, is useful to Lees as a suitable background for the white protagonist to take his sexual experimentations to a new realm—that with the male Other.

Ferdach O’Haney, Lees informs readers, has always had unconventional attitudes towards sexuality even back home in England. He is openly bisexual; his links with the bohemian London crowd contributed to this unconventional view on sexuality. His arrival in Malaya in 1950 as a fresh recruit of the British Colonial Service puts him in the position of discovering the country via various sexual encounters with men and women, white and non-white. These encounters represent Ferdach’s cultural and sexual initiation in a new environment both culturally and sexually. While one of his longest affairs is with a white woman, Ferdach is strongly attracted to Chinese and Malay men. The latter represent his first experience of the male Other, and he discovers that they are no less attractive for not being white; perhaps even more so. In this way, Ferdach is similar to the male protagonists of the French writer Henri Fauconnier’s novel Malaisie or The Soul of Malaya (1931), whose subtly portrayed attraction to each other represents Malaya as “a homo-erotic geography of adventure” (Ravi 2003, 429) in which only relationships between men matter. In addition, Ferdach is the white male subject as the “sovereign subject of information” (Spivak 1999, 213); as a resettlement officer he penetrates the Malayan jungles equipped with his [Western] knowledge, mapping territory, and reorgan­izing the population in service to British efforts to control the spread of communist ideology.

The image of the locus amoenus or the sensual garden is again a central and symbolic image against which Ferdach’s attraction to Mat Noor, his subordinate, is played out. Much of the action of Lees’ novel takes place in the forests of Malaya, concerning as it does the exploits of the British during the Emergency. There is a discernible pattern of images that links the geophysical environment with the protagonist’s burgeoning sexuality. In an early encounter not long after his arrival in Malaya, Ferdach notices Laura Sweinsoep, the wife of a teacher, and their mutual attraction is described by Lees in imagery reminiscent of the garden:

Mrs. Sweinsoep kept on glancing at him. She had beautiful olive skin, an oval face and regular features, set off by lustrous black hair that fell in a long sweep over her right cheek down to her elegant neck. . . . Ferdach went to work on a luscious mango. On a large wooden platter, a dulang, shaped like a cooking wok but actually a receptacle used for gold panning, other fruits, papayas, jambus, bananas, rambutans, mangosteens and a pineapple awaited his attention. So colourful, so sensual; he would never be short of vitamin C. He glanced across at Mrs. Sweinsoep and wished he knew her Christian name. She was still looking at him. He allowed a rambutan to wink at her from between his lips, white framed by red, before swallowing it. Their eyes met and they both smiled, she very broadly. (FG, 17)

The sexual connotations of fruit cannot be missed in the description, aside from the oblique reference to the “forbidden fruit”—Mrs. Sweinsoep herself, a married woman. Lees’ depiction of the seduction using garden imagery once used by Portuguese and British travelers in the past places not just economic value on Malaysia but also eroticizes it. Such accounts listed the various fruits and plants to be found in Malacca—durians, rambutans, mangosteens, bananas, and other strange fruits—attesting to their wonder at, and later, conviction of Malacca’s prodigious fecundity (Pires 1512; Barbosa 1518; de Eredia 1613; Dampier 1931). Lees reworks those lists, reinscribing Malaya’s fertile soil as aiding the white man’s sexual adventures.

The pattern of a sensual garden in Fool’s Gold continues as Lees fleshes out ­Ferdach’s sexuality. The following description acts as a prelude to Ferdach’s pursuit of a homosexual relationship with Mat Noor:

. . . Early in the morning, the three of them had an almost wordless breakfast. . . . Ferdach would then follow in his newly acquired green Morris Minor to meet up with his team and get on with his census work. The house was left in the efficient care of Cookie, a large self-confident Hakka Chinese, whose real name he never learned, and the garden in that of Yusuf’s wraithlike young brother Subian who was to be seen each morning clad only in a sarong gracefully tending the ­haphazard plots of hibiscus, frangipani and canna lilies, or cutting the grass around them in an abstracted sort of way as though he was a celestial gardener tending the lawns of Paradise. (FG, 65–66; italics my own)

The narrative’s preoccupation with the male body, represented by Subian’s “wraithlike,” sarong-clad physique occurs simultaneously with the garden archetype, which appears literally as the garden surrounding Ferdach’s quarters. Together with the suggestive phrase—that Subian resembled “a celestial gardener tending the lawns of Paradise”—this passage can be considered, in light of Spivak’s theory of worlding, as the white male colonizer’s reinscription of Malaysia’s geophysical environment as an expression of his own sexual fantasies.

Later, the locus amoenus appears again when Ferdach and Mat Noor begin to explore the possibility of a relationship. This takes place in a secluded spot in the forest, Mat Noor’s “secret garden,” where Ferdach, Mat Noor, and their friend Gordon Choo go for a swim. The spot is “a serenity shut off from the rest of human creation” (FG, 249), which, Gordon points out, is similar to “the Garden of Eden . . . the beginning of the world,” albeit one without Eve (FG, 249). As Mat Noor puts it, “[W]e are all Adams. No Eves to make trouble. So we can stay in paradise for ever” (FG, 249). Ferdach’s fantasy of male nudity—“that the three of them could be naked for it seemed that nakedness was an aesthetic requirement in such a sylvan scene” (FG, 249)—once again brings up the sexual connotations of the garden, projects his homoerotic fantasies onto the landscape, and marks his initiation into forbidden territory (forbidden fruit again), that is, a relationship with the male Other. As Srilata Ravi puts it, “[i]n the Other space, the slightest breath and faintest flicker are received by all senses at once and nakedness brings kinship with the elements” (Ravi 2003, 430).

The representation of Malaya as a sensual Eden produces an image of Malaysia inflected with eroticization; to know and represent the country to others is to experience it sexually. In Fool’s Gold, the white man reproduces the geophysical landscape of Malaya through multiple processes of sexual awakening, culminating with an initiation into the most exotic sexual experience of all, that with the male Other. This represents Malaya as an eroticized space ripe for experimentation for the sexually adventurous white male.


This study has revealed the patterns in which the garden archetype is used by British writers to represent Malaysia and the resulting notions about Malaysia that have been produced. Three dominant incarnations of the garden archetype can be discerned throughout the works representative of the colonial period: the lush, Romantic garden; the restrained, disciplined Victorian garden; and the barren, dried-up garden.

The garden archetype has been used to represent Malaysia as marked by corruption, deception, and sin. This motif is familiar to Western writers from portrayals of Eden in their religious and secular literature, but prior to the coming of Europeans to the Malay Archipelago, not to the indigenous inhabitants of the region themselves. In this way, native inscriptions of meaning regarding the garden are replaced with Western notions of the garden. This is how the worlding of Malaysia works, where Europeans establish themselves as the “sovereign [as] subject with a capital S” (Spivak 1999, 213) and represent regions outside the European sphere as its Others. The role of the white male subject as author of Malaysian images is evident in the selected novels as they ascribe to themselves the authority to represent geophysical features inflected with colonial rhetoric. Worlding also extends to the white male subject as characters in the novels, as they turn Malaysia into a sensual garden of earthly delights (Conrad and Lees) or, in a replication of their creators, appropriate the right to represent Malaysia by virtue of their superior knowledge (Riviere).

In Conrad’s images of Malaysia, one sees elements of the discourse of Romanticism on nature, which paints the geophysical landscape as alive with unseen forces and with which the observer establishes an emotional connection (Pratt 1992). The archetypal anima, or the “eternal feminine,” in An Outcast of the Islands symbolizes the combination of fear and desire of the white hero in Malaysia’s forests—sensations that are part of the rhetoric of the sublime central to Romantic and colonial discourses (ibid.; Nayar 2008). As the early period of British colonialism in Malaya moved on to the high colonial period, however, the sensual, Romantic garden is replaced by the calm order of its Victorian counterpart. Maugham saw a need to tame the passions that had run wild in Conrad’s fiction as well as in the men and women he encountered during his brief visit to Borneo in the 1920s. This manifests itself in images of neat British residencies and rubber plantations in his fiction.

By the time Burgess published his novel on the eve of Malaya’s independence from British rule, the archetype of the garden in which the land has been represented has attained a barren aspect. The garden, and by association Malaya, is depicted as having degenerated into a wasteland of filth matched by the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of its people.

The revival of interest in Malaysia as a lost paradise, evident in the contemporary novels by Frederick Lees and William Riviere, raises some interesting questions regarding the use of the garden archetype in the present such as: What prompted the nostalgia for a lost paradise? And what does this nostalgia signify? Perhaps there is dismay among contemporary writers at the rapid changes that have transformed the country such that it is no longer recognizable from the idyllic pictures of colonial times. The archetypal garden therefore is the ideal image on which they can project their atavistic desire, a return to a familiar space in unfamiliar times.

Finally, the literary texts explored in this article feature the experiences of British colonizers and expatriates in the Malay Peninsula (for instance, Time for a Tiger, Fool’s Gold) and Borneo (for example, An Outcast of the Islands, Borneo Fire). The patterns of the garden archetype discussed in this article may lead to further studies that would take into account the different socio-political structures in the Malay Peninsula and Borneo and how those differences would have affected representations of both regions in British fiction. Additionally, the colonization of parts of the Malay Peninsula and Borneo by the British consisted of distinctive policies and practices; it would certainly be worth looking into how these too would have left a mark on how British writers viewed the Malay States and British Borneo in the past and in the present.

Accepted: January 10, 2013


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von Franz, M-L. 1978. The Process of Individuation. In Man and His Symbols, edited by C. G. Jung, pp. 157–254. London: Picador.

Yeow, A. 2009. Conrad’s Eastern Vision: A Vain and Floating Appearance. London: Palgrave.

Zawiah Yahya. 2003. Resisting Colonialist Discourse. 2nd edition. Bangi: Penerbit UKM.

1) “Malaysia” is used in my reading of Conrad as a loose term that encompasses Sumatra and North East Borneo because of their proximity to what would eventually become Malaysia (Hampson 2000, 14).

2) Joseph Conrad is a British writer of Polish origins who traveled to India, the Malay Archipelago, and Australia as a merchant sailor between 1874 and 1893 (Stape 2002). William Somerset Maugham is a British novelist and playwright who visited Malaya and Borneo between 1921 and 1922 and again between 1925 and 1926 (Holden 1996). Anthony Burgess taught in Malaya and Brunei between 1954 and 1960 (Burgess 2000).

3) Frederick Lees served in the Malayan Civil Service after the Second World War up to the 1950s (Lees 2004). William Riviere is based in Italy and has traveled in Southeast Asia and East Asia (Hodder & Stoughton website,

4) The earliest novel chosen for analysis is Joseph Conrad’s An Outcast of the Islands (1896) and the most recent is Frederick Lees’ Fool’s Gold (2004); a gap of 108 years exists between these two works.

5) Jung introduced the concept of the “collective unconscious” in addition to the individual unconscious theorized by Sigmund Freud. The collective unconscious exists in all human beings and is universal in nature, containing archetypes that are also shared by mankind.

6) The anima or the archetypal feminine refers to the feminine aspect present in the collective unconscious. “What is not-I, not masculine, is most probably feminine, and because the not-I is felt as not belonging to me and therefore as outside me, the anima-image is usually projected upon women” states Jung (1991, 27).

7) Nayar defines the missionary picturesque as the “visual vocabulary and aesthetic ideas . . . in order to trope Indian primitivism and colonial improvement” (2008, 94) present in travel writing by English missionaries in India, while the sporting luxuriant refers to the colonial rhetoric that specifically applies to descriptions of the jungle and wildlife in hunting memoirs. Thus each trope is specific to the genre of travel writing it is found in.

8) Classical Malay epic poems featuring heroes’ exploits and semi-mythical histories of the Malay world.

9) The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an, 2001, Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall.

10) John Brookes notes that the expression “gardens underneath which rivers flow” is found more than 30 times in the Qur’an (cited in McIntosh 2005, 36–37).

11) The settings for Conrad’s Malaysian fiction are a hybrid of the places in the Malay Archipelago that he visited as a merchant sailor, for example, Sumatra, Singapore, and Northeast Borneo (Sherry 1971; Hampson 2000). Robert Hampson prefers the term “Malaysia” as that was the term used in the 1830s (Hampson 2000, 14; see the Introduction of this paper).

12) It should be noted that the expatriate British community in Malaya and Borneo protested at Maugham’s misrepresentation of them in his stories.

13) The form that the Devil took when he tempted Eve to eat the Forbidden Fruit in the Garden of Eden.

14) Sylvia Brooke, former Rani of Sarawak, explains: “The barrier between the sexes was in those days unbreakable. The Rajah reckoned that if any man in his service got married, he lost ninety-nine percent of his efficiency. If he wanted a woman, there were plenty of Sarawakians, and girls of twelve or thirteen were exploited for this purpose by their parents. It was a vicious doctrine; it drove white men into the welcoming brown arms of the local girls, involved them in tropical entangle­ments, and produced a harvest that remained long after they had gone” (Brooke 1970, 81).

15) De Vellez Guerreiro describes the consecration of a plot of land granted to the Portuguese by the Sultan of Johor on which to build a church as “sanctifying that land already rendered unclean by the spurious rites of Mohamed and abominable sacrifices to idols” ([1732] 1935, 145). Isabella Bird pronounces the Malay Peninsula as “a vast and malarious equatorial jungle sparsely peopled by a race of semi-civilised and treacherous Mohammedans” ([1883] 2006, 1).

16) A thinly-disguised Kuala Kangsar, the seat of the Sultans of Perak and also where the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK), Malaya’s experiment with the British public school system, is located. It appears in the novel as Mansor College. Burgess taught at MCKK in the first years of his service in Malaya.

17) Victor is portrayed as the serious, passionate scholar of Malaya while Fenella only pretends to the title.

18) In the novel, Hugh is described wearing cricket whites as an unofficial uniform.

19) The parallel figure in Lord Jim is Jewel, a girl of white and Malay parentage.

20) “As you sprawl on the bamboo decking under the shadow of the immense palm leaf sail . . . you look out through half-closed eyelids at a very beautiful coast. . . . The wash of the waves against the boat’s side and the ripple of the bow make music in your drowsy ears, and, as you glide through cluster after cluster of thickly-wooded islands, you lie in that delightful comatose state in which you have all the pleasure of existence with none of the labour of living” (Clifford 1897, 4).


Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1, April 2014, pp. 49-84
©Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University

Vol. 1, No. 2 of Southeast Asian Studies

Published in August, 2012


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