Book Review: Politics of Multiculturalism: Pluralism and Citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia

Book Title :The Politics of Multiculturalism: Pluralism and Citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia
Author : Robert W. Hefner
Publication : University of Hawai Press

A Review by Zulkhan Indra Putra

The book under review is a collection of papers by a group of fourteen scholars, with the support of the Ford Foundation from 1998 to 2000, who have analyzed the question on how to achieve civility and inclusive citizenship in deeply plural societies like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. These edited volumes constitute additions to a growing difficulties that democratic institutions encountered on some of the deeply plural countries about the prospect of democratic governance. The collection edited by Robert W. Hafner is, however, more specific in scope than the one by Will Kymlicka and Baogang He, Multiculturalism in Asia, which focuses on multiculturalism in several countries of Asia. All the contributions in the book provide much detail for the academic with all interviews that were recorded, transcribed, and subjected to content analysis.

Questions of why policy makers and theorists had to come to the problem of pluralism and democracy are basically based on three reasons; firstly, the difficulties that democratic institutions encountered in some of the independent countries of Asia and Africa in 1960s, particularly the problem of ethno-religious rivalries in former communist countries. Secondly, a vast increase in immigration to western countries, since the growing minority immigrants resist the settler project, Anglo-American contract, that welcoming foreign immigrants as long as the newcomers were willing and able to assimilate to mainstream linguistic, cultural, and racial prototypes. Thereof, in turn, the Anglo-American contract was changing in 1980s and 1990s (pg. 16)

Lastly, if I may add, is heated debates over multiculturalism in the West, particularly in Germany, with the emergence of the right-wing extremism in East Germany, comprising xenophobia and nationalism, anti-Semitism and ideological commitments to authoritarianism, racial and political inequality. (Wolfgang: 43). However, pluralism has been a source of tension and conflict in plural societies. Therefore, Hefner collects the project as growing pessimism on whether or not democracy is possible in plural societies.

How to achieve civility and inclusive citizenship in multicultural societies? What conditions facilitate peaceful coexistence and inclusive participation in such societies? And for the same reason, what makes multiculturalism in contemporary Asia so different with its Western counterpart? Politics of Multiculturalism: Pluralism and Citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, edited by Robert W. Hefner, offers the experience of these Southeast Asian examples for pluralism and citizenship around the world. An understanding of the conditions of its resolution is needed in non-Western societies as well as Western ones. The result can enrich the Western experience of the possibility of democracy in multicultural societies, since the aim to gain civility in plural societies is almost universal today.

In the introduction of the book, Hefner begins with the elaboration of the idea of J.S. Furnivall, the British administrator and political writer, who introduced Western readers to the idea of plural societies, as most of the contributors of this book also base their analysis on J.S. Furnivall’s model. In the collection of his works, Furnivall criticized the guarantees of civil peace provided by the narrowly economistic understandings of market by Adam Smith. He, then, said that the market and interests are inconsistence guarantees of civil peace.

With the rise of native nationalist movements, after second World War, he forecasted that Asian nationalisms offered no solution to the problems of plural identity and integration, and it will only turned into the state of anarchy. However, his notion was wrong since the new native leadership proved good skill at operating the machinery of government after independence in Indonesia (1945), Malaysia (1957), and Singapore (1959).

But, it seems that his forecast got some justifications as these three countries were hitted by ethnic violence in several years after independence. In 1969, Malaysia was swept by ethnic violence, in 1964 Singapore witnessed ethnic violence and in 1965 was forced out its two years federation with Malaysia after a dispute over the rights of Malay and Chinese citizens. Finally, Indonesia saw outbreaks of communal violence in the 1950s and 1965 and was swept by ethno-religious violence from 1996 to 2001 (pg. 20). Although not so much dramatic, but heated debates overwhelmed within public and national discourse over ethnic and religious policies until this day.

What makes these three countries experience become interesting subject is the fact that these countries enjoyed one of the most sustained periods of economic expansion that the industrializing world has ever seen, from the late 1960s to the beginning of the East Asian Economic crisis in August 1997. Interestingly, this growth has not diminish the existing ethno-religious divisions, instead has raised new questions regarding justice and participation. However, it is evaluating the impact of market making and nation building on existing and emerging social divisions.

In the following chapter, Hefner illuminates the positive role and the lack of civil society in accordance with the existing cultural divisions. He argues that civic traditions of civil society can serve as a kind of “social capital” that contributes to the development of a public culture of citizenship and inclusive participation (pg.22). Encountering the problematic assumptions of civil society as homogeneous and undifferentiated things, and almost good for democracy, he invokes the notion of Robert Putnam in his Making Democracy Work: Civic Tradition on Modern Italy. Robert Putnam stated that civic associations can be organized in consistent with ethno-religious divisions and sometimes these divisions can stimulate social rivalries that diminish the prospects of civic harmony. So, sometimes, it might be happen that certain civil society becoming ‘uncivil’ in their behavior.

However, those assumptions may not undermine the concept of civil society. Hefner, then, invokes Habermas’ notion that the ideal civil society has to be in the manner that civic association’s actors have to show signal respect for the rights of other citizens irrespective of the race, religion, ethnicity, gender, and class. Only when this cultural quality of democratic civility is added to ‘the structural reality’ of civic associations, we can say that civil society is able to contribute “to the development of a public culture of democratic citizenship and inclusive participation”.

Hefner summarizes the transition from the multicultural plurality of the early Indo-Malay civilization to the post-colonial period. He portrays the early sixteenth century’s trade network situation in the great port of Malacca with a pluralistic meeting-point of people from all over maritime Asia. Here, the Indo-Malay civilization accommodated a pattern of “economic pluricentrism” with cultural diversity and mobility resembled the Eastern Mediterranean in the early modern period. One noteworthy consequence is the fact that although most of the region’s ports were Muslim principalities, the region was not dominated by any single kingdom, but was based on network collaboration of many small states.

The impact of European colonialism was the consolidation of ethno-religious differences. In Malaysia, during 19th century, socio-political segregation between Malays, Chinese, and Indians was introduced through administrative apparatus, and in Singapore and Indonesia as well. Thereof, different groups were formally categorized according to ethnicity. However, in contrast to Indonesian form of citizenship, Malaysia and Singapore adopt group-differentiated citizenship with the idea of ethnic membership and that of citizenship.

In regard to the relation between economic and ethnicity, Malaysia and Indonesia conducted different experiences. During East Asian economic crisis in 1997 and 1998, Mahatir Mohamad urged Malaysian Chinese, mostly rich, to purchase shares in Malay-owned business that threatened by bankruptcy. In Indonesia, Suharto began to accuse Chinese Indonesian considered them as the mastermind of the economic crisis that finally brought him and his New Order government down. 1990s and 2000 Indonesia was a foundational crisis of citizenship and governance, where regime elites propaganda were jeopardizing the great pluralist achievements in the country. However, just prior to Suharto’s fall, the transition from the era of democratic authoritarianism to the era of reformation, Indonesia had seen the emergence of the world’s largest movement for a civil democratic Islam.

Hefner believes that the impact of economic growth and the emergence of different societies allow the creation of more new civic associations as positive social capital. Thereby, the state must support their existence and work with them hand in hand in order to achieve civility and inclusive citizenship. Finally, this is the conclusion that we can learn from the experience of these three countries.


Edelstein, Wolfgang. International Perspectives on Youth Conflict and Development. Chapter 2: Extremist Youth in Germany: The Role of History and Development and Cohort Experience. New York: Oxford University Press (2006)


~ by zulkhanip on November 30, 2010.

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