Risking Malaysia: Culture, Politics and Identity explores ongoing contests and antinomies in Malaysian society such as, an embryonic civil society’s struggle to mature within the state’s surveillance, women’s negotiations with structures of male domination, individualism against collectivity, decentralization versus centralization, marginalization vis-a-vis the central position of elites, poverty against riches, resistance countering oppression and counterhegemony as Opposed to hegemony. But this is not to imply that the complexities of Malaysian culture, politics and identity can be reduced to unambiguous, binary divides that suggest simple solutions. This book is also about uncovering the riddle of identity.
In whatever way it is conceived or defined, “identity” is both a source of strength and weakness; and it can be politicized and naturalized as if it is organically derived. In fact, it is imbued with ambiguities, vulnerable to manipulation, and is both oppressive, as well as liberating since it is open to reinvention and reconstruction.
This book deals with the question of the ambivalences, doubts, and dilemmas that accompany motives and decisions behind the political and cultural agency. Although this book may implicitly suggest that the necessary site for renewal is political, it recognizes that culture must always persist as the repository of hope, idealism, integrity, or simply, people’s “innate decency,” providing sufficient traction to political movements. In tracing the roots of Malaysia’s current crisis of democratization and development one can delve as far back in history as one wishes to. Nonetheless, it is already illuminating to use the watershed of 1969, the year of ethnic riots, as an antecedent to explaining Malaysia’s present-day political and cultural manifestations.
Anwar Ibrahim’s sacking in September 1998 may have triggered an unprecedented mass outrage against the ruling establishment, but seeds of today’s national discontent were planted decades earlier. The theme of Reformasi punctuates this book but it is not its sole concern. This book is equally attentive to everyday micro-politics that propel people to engage in or disengage themselves from narratives and visions of grand transitions and transformations.
This book grew out of a project which began some ten months after the start of the Asian financial disaster and some four months before the dawning of the Anwar crisis. A seminar series, themed, “Risking Malaysia: Culture, Politics and Identity” was held from June till December 1998 during which many of the papers for this book were presented. The idea for the seminar was perhaps conceived out of a sense of intellectual and cultural desolation.
On the surface and at the palpable material level it was the Asian financial crisis that seemed to open the floodgates for “rethinking.” But at a deeper level, there had been a sense of unease among concerned Malaysians that the country’s escalating prosperity (before the financial debacle struck), was not matched by a proportionate rise in the quality of its social, political, and intellectual life. Thus, more than assessing material loss in the wake of the crisis, something else needed to be explained.
Among a considerable number of people, there appeared to be a sudden change of heart towards notions of what used to be socially and politically acceptable namely, the heavy-handedness of the “omnipotent” state, the uncontested developmentalist goal of personal and national material enrichment, the capitulation of intellectual idealism to pragmatic pedagogy, the consensus for illiberal democracy in exchange for “performance-legitimacy,” the submersion of human rights under the so-called collective will, the cultural and economic defense of racial, class and gender divides in the paradoxical pursuit of national integration.
The articles in this book examine these concerns by looking at diverse issues and case studies. The authors employ a myriad of sources for their scrutiny—from empirical social surveys to literary texts as they critique and selectively employ current theorizing on their chosen subjects.
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