1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Project: Racism and Public Policy

Abstract of Paper by Lily Zubaida Rahim

  • Project from: 2000 to 2001

Race, Discrimination and Citizenship in Southeast Asia
The East Asian regional economic crisis has precipitated a questioning of previous approaches to economic, social and political governance for the new millennium. In particular, the fall of Indonesia’s authoritarian Suharto regime, the subsequent independence of the East Timorese from the yoke of Javanese domination, and the strengthening of democratic impulses in the region have served to energize ethnic minorities and other marginalized communities to vociferously champion their rights.

Significantly, the political turbulence in many Southeast Asian countries suggests that consensus for the political ground-rules and a shared political culture was at best tenuously maintained. For example, Indonesia’s pancasila ideology has been uneasily received by the more orthodox Muslims, while Malaysia’s bumiputera affirmative action policies may have created new inequities while attempting to resolve old ones. The latter is accused of depriving non-indigenous Malaysians of their citizenship rights. Correspondingly, the ideologies of meritocracy and multiracialism in Singapore have been cynically perceived by ethnic minorities as an ideological smokescreen for preserving Chinese hegemony.

Of conceptual import was the ability of these authoritarian multi-ethnic states to contain ethnic tensions during the high-growth years of the 1980s and 1990s, and to retain their performance-based legitimacy. The relationship between the health of the economy and its impact on state management of ethnicity and ethnic relations are explored in this paper.

The Southeast Asian experience suggests that authoritarian regimes are more likely to employ communally based policies, less responsive to ethnic minority concerns, disinclined to conform to international human rights standards and disinterested in establishing state-sponsored anti-discrimination agencies.

On the other hand, some of the more democratic societies have not consistently guaranteed the economic, cultural and political interests of minorities. Indeed, the democratization process can provide considerable incentives for political entrepreneurs to mobilize the population along ethnic lines, exploiting this potent political resource and thereby strengthening ethnic politics.

As such, the maintenance of democratic institutions and processes in ethnically divided societies requires skilful political management by both politicians and civil society groups. To better understand and conceptualize these issues within a comparative context, this paper undertakes an examination of the political negotiation of ethnic and minority rights in the democratizing nations of Southeast Asia.

Education has long been recognized by states as an important instrument for nation building and social restructuring, and as a vehicle for social mobility. How effective have education systems been in achieving these ends, and what have been the experiences of ethnic minorities in educational institutions? A comparative examination of the ramifications of affirmative action and purportedly meritocratic educational practices on ethnic minorities in Malaysia and Singapore will aid our understanding of the multi-faceted forces that perpetuate ethnic tension and discrimination in Southeast Asia.