Reformasi: Race and Identity in Malaysian Politics in a Globalized Era
Race has truly been the dominant organizing principle in Malaysian politics since the nationalist movement following World War II, and has arguably governed Malaysian society itself since the founding of the British Straits Settlements of the nineteenth century. In 1998 and 1999, a number of forces linked to modern globalization coincided uniquely and dramatically to call that dominance into question. This took the form of the Reformasi social movement and its effects on the 1999 general elections. Ultimately, under conditions of globalization, race is slowly but fundamentally losing its central role in the country's political culture.
A mixture of authoritarianism and economic success had generally suppressed Malaysia's racial discontents since its independence in 1957, with a few notable exceptions. Calls for change in 1998 were initially triggered by a challenge to the country's economic success, in the form of the East Asian financial crisis of 1997 and 1998 (Weiss, 2006). The value of the Malaysian currency, the ringgit, fell by half, the local stock exchange and the property market plummeted, and bad loans increased. At the very top of government, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed and Anwar Ibrahim, his deputy and heir apparent, differed sharply on how to deal with the crisis. Anwar supported conventional free market measures including possible recourse to the International Monetary Fund. Mahathir saw this as an unacceptable surrender of national economic sovereignty. Meanwhile, slow attempts at corporate and financial restructuring added to public discontent, and preferential treatment for government-selected firms in the form of rescue packages made alleged corruption and cronyism plainly visible. Mahathir fired his heir apparent and enacted strict capital and currency controls. The economy indeed improved, but the leader-in-waiting would not go quietly (Weiss, 2006).
Though Anwar's firing coincided with the imposition of economic controls, the official reason given for it was alleged sexual misconduct. In a move that was shocking to many Malaysians, Mahathir himself graphically and explicitly described his former deputy's alleged sodomy and adultery to the press (Weiss, 2006). Though these alleged acts are considered crimes in Malaysia, Anwar spent eighteen days before his eventual arrest addressing large audiences on "justice, the purported evils of Mahathirism, the prevalence of cronyism and corruption, the need for social safety nets, and the urgency of reform" (Weiss, 2006, p. 129). His message attracted the support of opposition parties, and Islamic NGOs with their extensive grassroots networks. After a massive rally in the capital on September 20th, 1998 that included members of such groups and those who sympathized with them, Anwar was finally arrested and held under the Internal Security Act (ISA) before being formally charged (Weiss, 2006). Opposition to this unrepealed war measure, effectively allowing indefinite detention without trial, became a touchstone for the new movement. However, the financial crisis and the arrest of Anwar would prove to be catalysts for expressions of much wider discontent. Central demands of the emerging social movement included media and judicial independence, an end to corruption and cronyism, and from some quarters, greater Islamization to combat alleged increasing immorality in government and society. A move away from ethnicized politics also became a significant goal for many in the movement (Weiss, 2006).
This research paper examines how globalization is affecting the implications of 'race' and 'identity' in Malaysian politics. In particular, it investigates the significance of the Reformasi movement, civil society networks, religion, and the internet in challenging dominant constructions of identity, and considers the political and social implications. It looks at whether Reformasi was an anomaly or if it in fact indicated wider trends and potential for change regarding the dominance of race and identity in the country's politics. The first section provides a theoretical framework based on Manuel Castells' theories of social change in the information age and the network society. The second section gives historical context of the ethnicization and racialization of Malaysian politics. The third section discusses the continuation of dominant racial discourses in the political sphere, and the challenges these discourses faced in the period between independence and Reformasi. The fourth section looks at the role of civil society organizations during Reformasi, in particular the processes of networking and coalition-building. The fifth section assesses the rise of Islam as a source of identity vis-à-vis ethnic Malay identity, and how this manifested itself during the movement. The sixth section looks at how media has been used both to reinforce hegemonic discourses of race and to challenge them. It considers how internet access shook things up during Reformasi, despite government attempts to maintain media control. The last section discusses the legacy of the Reformasi movement in these areas, as well as potential for further change regarding the place of race and identity in the country's politics. Civil society, religion, and media are changing and interacting in new ways that offer opportunities for new discourses on the subject, and Reformasi was a manifestation of that. The Malaysian experience is relevant to other populations around the globe that are negotiating identities under similar forces of globalization, with similar tools of a globalized era.
My analysis will be guided by Manuel Castells' theories on resistance identities as the new sources of project identities, and thus of social change, in the information age and the network society. Castells (1997) hypothesizes that "in general terms, who constructs collective identity, and for what, largely determines the symbolic content of this identity, and its meaning for those identifying with it or placing themselves outside of it" (p. 7). In other words, at its core, the construction and perpetuation of collective identity is an exercise of power. As will be seen, the British colonizers in what is now Malaysia constructed race as the principal identity to serve their own economic purposes, using it to determine people's function in the colonial economy. Post-independence elites perpetuated the primacy of race so as to maintain political support. Race became what Castells (1997) calls the legitimizing identity, "introduced by the dominant institutions of society to extend and rationalize their domination vis-à-vis social actors" (p. 8). It generates civil society (in the original Gramscian sense of the term) which reinforces it.
When structural power dominates completely, there is little space for people to self-identify using categories other than those endorsed by the legitimizing identity. However, Castells (1997) argues that while identities can originate from dominant institutions, "they become identities only when and if social actors internalize them, and construct their meaning around this internalization" (p. 7). Resistance identity is created by those actors which are stigmatized or devalued by the dominant institutions, and leads to the creation of communes or communities.
Project identity is "when social actors, on the basis of whichever cultural materials are available, build a new identity that redefines their position in society and, by so doing, seek the transformation of the overall social structure" (Castells, 1997, p. 8). It is argued that this produces subjects, or "collective agents of social transformation" (p. 67). While legitimizing identity is a construction of structural power, the construction of resistance and project identities are manifestations of individual or group autonomy.
According to Castells (1997), in modernity, subjects and project identity emerged from Gramscian civil society; but in the network society, they grow from communal resistance. This places identity politics at the very forefront of social change in the network society. Castells (1997) believes that "the transformation of communal resistance into transformative subjects is the precise realm for a theory of social change in the information age" (p. 11-12). However, this does not necessarily suggest a renewed importance for the politics of race and ethnicity. Indeed, Castells (1997) asserts that ethnicity alone is not a sufficient basis for communes in the network society, as other forms of identity gain in relative significance. Instead, ethnicity interacts with locality, religion, and nation to create cultural communes that are broader than ethnicity.
As the site of identity construction shifts from structural power to group and individual autonomy, so to does the site of media and communications activity. Hegemonic state media could put forward legitimizing identities more successfully in the past, but Castells (2003) sees three mass media challenges faced by nation-states, namely "globalization and interlocking of ownership; flexibility and pervasiveness of technology; autonomy and diversity of the media" (p. 254). If this contributes to the fragmentation and diversification of social interests, then Castells (2003) would believe it does the same to identities, which are reconstituted in new forms. The state's decreasing ability to address the new, increasing, and diverse demands of its citizenry is what Habermas (1973) called a 'legitimation crisis'. It is thus not surprising that Castells (2003) considers media control "a cornerstone of state power" (p. 259).
Constructions of Race and Identity in Historical Context
To understand the Reformasi movement as either a symptom or an agent of change vis-à-vis race and identity in Malaysian politics, it is important to understand how the concepts became so central to political discourse in the first place. Those who construct collective identity often wish to give the impression that it is not constructed at all, but somehow primordial, innate, and unchanging. This has been central to race in Malaysia since colonial times, even though as late as the second half of the nineteenth century, the Malay language actually lacked a word for the concept of 'race' (Mandal, 2003).
In pre-colonial Malaysia and Indonesia, the kings, or rajas seemed to construct collective identity around people's pledges of allegiance to them. In fact, the term 'Malay' is said to have first denoted a line of kingship descending from the empires of Srivijaya and Melaka (Andaya, 2001), making it much more class-based than race-based in it original formulation. More subjectively, 'Malay' became a self-referent label for any person who became part of Malay-speaking trading networks, spoke and wrote the language, wore certain clothes and ate certain foods. Thus, any cultural aspect to the 'Malay' category that may have existed was very accepting of 'recruits' of any background. There was definite flexibility and openness in the concept. Inhabitants of the Southeast Asian archipelago at the time did not envision themselves as members of a common race (Nah, 2006). South Asian, Chinese, and even Portuguese and Dutch traders followed local labels in defining the people they encountered, as they were primarily interested in commerce, and not in spreading national values or ideas (Reid, 1997).
The arrival of the British changed this situation. Their coastal Straits Settlements were initially set up for control of strategic positions on trade routes to China (Hirschman, 1986), and attracted traders from throughout the region. Around the middle of the nineteenth century, inland opportunities in tin and cash-crop agriculture fuelled further immigration (Hirschman, 1986). By 1871, there were as many immigrants as non-immigrants in the Straits Settlements (Hua, 1983). Due to British policies favouring plantation agriculture over peasant agriculture, such as tax breaks and choice of land, Malay peasants sought to join the British and Chinese in growing cash crops (Jomo, 1986). However, an exploding (largely immigrant) population requiring the import of rice from Burma and Siam was draining Malaya of foreign exchange (Jomo, 1986). British maintenance of the Malay social structure and their presence in the rice padis would: a) prevent 'shifting cultivation' that used potential plantation land, b) target the local market, not intruding on export plantations, and c) lessen the colony's dependence on rice imports and its loss of foreign currency (Jomo, 1986). However, in an economy where cash crops and labour were in high demand, Malay peasant attraction to those sectors was understandable. The British colonial regime became highly irritated with Malay unwillingness to meet their economic demands, and in 1913 instituted the Malay Reservation Enactment. This legally codified for the first time who was 'Malay' and, by extension, defined who could grow only rice or only rubber (Milner, 2004).
To justify such ethnicized policies, the British drew upon pseudo-scientific racial classification theories of their so-called 'Enlightenment'. Economic apartheid was accompanied by the British development of the field of 'Malay studies' (Shamsul, 2001). This included descriptions of supposed predispositions of the different racial categories. British Resident Frank Swettenham wrote that “(T)he leading characteristic of the Malay of every class is a disinclination to work” (Alatas, 1977, p. 44). Alatas (1977) believes it was actually Malay disinclination to work under slave-like conditions for British interests that earned them the reputation. By contrast, Chinese and Indians earned reputations in the literature as industrious people, but it must be noted that as indentured labourers without citizenship rights and merchants looking to save enough money to go home, they were much more dependent on British business (Alatas, 1977).
Cheah Boon Kheng (1997) discusses how the British colonized not only the physical land of Malaysia, but also the native epistemological space. They determined what information was important, and how it was to be gathered and classified. Sir Stamford Raffles arbitrarily changed the English name of a Malay genealogy of rulers and their ceremonies from "Rules for Rulers" to "Malay Annals", a name which most scholars still use today (Shamsul, 2001). In spite of the term 'Malay' being used somewhat flexibly and ubiquitously in precolonial Southeast Asia, Marsden saw fit to declare the peninsula the place of origin of the Malays. The new English term 'Malay Peninsula' was later translated into Malay as 'Tanah Melayu', or 'Malay land', a translation with continuing repercussions (Shamsul, 2001). These practices influenced colonial policies to the point where "(T)he sheer volume of 'facts' accumulated by the British on Malayness has established hegemony of colonial knowledge in Malaysia's intellectual realm" (Shamsul, 2001, p. 359). The arbitrary and inconsistent categorisations of people in censuses over the years show the truly constructed and instrumental nature of discourses of ethnicity in this context (Mandal, 2003). These were appropriated and revised by independence-era elites for their own purposes.
After World War II and decades of policies entrenching racialization in the peninsula, the colonizers somehow envisioned an independent nation in which plural communities shared a "common Malayan outlook and purpose" (MacKenzie, 1951, p. 7). This vision included full citizenship for all, but Malay nationalists of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) objected strongly, and the British agreed that both Islam and the Malay language would be enshrined in the constitution as official. Most significantly, Article 153 granted the King of Malaysia (one of the Malay sultans in the system of rotating monarchy) responsibility "to safeguard the special position of the Malays" (University of Richmond, Article 153). This outlines how quotas can be established for Malays for public scholarships, spots in public universities, and even jobs in the civil service. This has been carried out in programs such as the New Economic Policy (NEP), discussed below. Of course, this also requires a constitutional definition of what it is to be a Malay. That is set out in Article 160: “'Malay' means a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay custom" (University of Richmond, Article 160(2)). Questioning these provisions, even in parliament, can be grounds for sedition charges, making them very entrenched indeed (Hassan, 2002).
In spite of the impression of unchanging authority that constitutional definitions are supposed to give, collective identities are just as susceptible to alteration under post-colonial powerbrokers as they were under the British. This is demonstrated in the case of Malaysia's non-Malay aboriginal peoples. Before independence, Malay elites claimed indigeneity to argue for special privileges and rights, and the Chinese and Indian elites accepted this (Nah, 2006). However, other non-majority indigenous groups were not included in these negotiations and did not receive these privileges and rights. When these aboriginal groups became crucial allies against communist forces, they were given the name Orang Asli (original people) as a mark of respect, but not much more (Nah, 2006). The states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo joined independent Malaya in 1963. As non-Malay indigenous people make up a very large proportion of the populations in those states, it was clear that giving special status to Malays alone would not be politically tenable there. Thus, the government amended Article 153 of the Constitution to cover 'natives' of these states, while still excluding the peninsular Orang Asli (Nah, 2006). In an earlier work, Nah (2003) notes that acknowledging the Orang Asli as a significant part of Malaysia as a nation-state is a threat to the place of the Malays, in an ethno-nationalistic sense, as the sole or primary indigenous inhabitants of the peninsula. This 'threat' is managed by trying to assimilate Orang Asli into the Malay identity rather than sharing the primacy and privileges of indigeneity with another distinct group. The government spends millions of ringgit to convert them to Islam (Dentan et al., 1997; Nicholas, 2000; Nicholas & Williams-Hunt, 1996). This is the way for aboriginals to effectively become Malay in a legal sense and to share Malay privileges, and so it is increasingly done.
The alteration and expansion of the supposedly primordial Malay identity for political dominance did not stop there. The federal government cooperated with (or co-opted) non-Malay Muslim groups to form Muslim-led governments on Borneo with Chinese support. The term bumiputera (son of the soil) was introduced to unite the Malays, and the native Muslims and native non-Muslims of Sabah and Sarawak. In the late 1980s, UMNO, self-proclaimed standard-bearers of Malay identity, even made membership available to non-Muslim bumiputeras in order to try to regain power in Sabah (Shamsul, 2001). As a result of the communal politics it had perpetuated, the federal government had had to concede the constructed nature of the very concepts that contributed to its own legitimacy.
The impact of globalization on the place of race in Malaysian politics is apparent in the struggle of the Orang Asli and other indigenous people. Recent court rulings have drawn on notable cases brought by indigenous people in other countries, suggesting their similar socio-legal standing globally. Bunnell and Nah (2004) see Orang Asli being imagined as members of a global indigenous network.
Despite the inequitable and racial nature of the political and economic system left by the British, for over a decade it seemed the Malayan people, to their credit, would avoid the strife of other newly independent states. Ostensibly to avoid racial conflict, post-independence elites formed the 'Alliance', a coalition of ethnically-based political parties including UMNO, the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA), and the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC) (Hua, 1983). A system of 'consociationalism' developed, including "the proportionality principle, mutual balancing, compromises and concessions" (Hwang, 2003, p. 83). However, Malay political hegemony and the economic superiority of non-Malays was mutually recognized (Hwang, 2003), an interesting mirror of the British working assumptions of the peninsula. The Alliance is now known as Barisan Nasional (BN), and has ruled uninterrupted since independence.
While political developments seemed to provide stability, economic policies would soon make the former untenable. Rural poverty became endemic, and as British policy had ensured that the rural population was overwhelmingly Malay, there developed a racialized association between the two (Roslan, 2001). In the decade following independence, income inequalities increased within all ethnic groups. Though this might have led to political unification of the poor across racial lines, Jomo (2004) notes how with leftist movements all but destroyed by the government in the 1960s, racial discourses dominated. Roslan (2001) shows how inequality in 1960s Malaysia was more complicated than either a simple matter of race or location. In spite of this, people were mobilized along racial lines to do political battle over issues that actually affected the poor of all racial and ethnic groups. Malays demanded a greater share of the economic wealth and non-Malays voiced concern over the indigenous political monopoly. The system had been built along racial lines and that is how it fell apart. Tension followed gains by parties identified with non-Malay interests (Hefner, 2001). On May 13th, 1969, racial riots exploded (Rahman, 1969). For many, these riots signified the failure of the 'consociational' arrangement.
Since Barisan Nasional's greatest electoral losses came immediately before those riots, they have successfully promoted themselves as the only force for stability in an allegedly explosive situation. However, it can be argued that the coalition's arrangements have actually helped to perpetuate racialization and its tensions across the country rather than to fully address them. For example, since the 1970s, an individual's membership in this coalition has only been possible indirectly through one of its constituent parties, and the major ones are sectarian (Rachagan, 1993). The effective organization of politics through communal cooperation rather than through individual consent has had far-reaching consequences. From a reading of Castells (2004), it seems reasonable that to maintain power, such a coalition would want to encourage ethnicity as the primary form of collective identity. In Malaysia, power is playing a key role in identity construction based on race. Mahathir cited economic development as another basis for governmental legitimacy, but intercommunal harmony was deemed a necessary precondition for that, too. Thus, the chaos of the Asian financial crisis was viewed by many as a breach of that legitimacy, and contributed to a willingness to agitate for change on a number of fronts.
Challenges to the Continuation of Hegemonic Discourses on Race and Identity
It would be misleading to characterize the racialization of Malaysia's politics or society as absolute. It would be equally misleading to consider Reformasi the only instance of such transethnic political cooperation between individuals outside of the dominant discourse. Wolters (1999) evokes long term influences, the bases of transethnic solidarities which continue to influence Malaysian life in creative and meaningful ways. This is said to happen in spite of government efforts to racialize the political arena. He cites the hybrid Baba-Nonya culture, which maintains a combination of traditions distinct from both its Malay and Chinese antecedents (Wolters, 1999). However, Mandal (2003) states that the marginalization or erasure of such communities is important to those benefiting from racialization. Anti-colonial left movements representing different ethnic groups formed a united political front in 1947, but this was crushed as the British colonial administration, and then the newly-independent Malayan administration, fought against the armed communist insurgency of 1948 to 1960, known as the Emergency (Mandal, 2003). The ruling coalition has downplayed even peaceful creoles, trans-communal groupings, and non-communal groupings, as its success depends on repeatedly mobilizing voters along ethnic lines. Still, research in the late 1990s showed a significant trend toward transcultural relationships in business, religious, and civic organizations, outside of the constraining political structure (Embong, 2000). Those less-racialized solidarities which the state has failed to erase from memory are useful starting points for movements like Reformasi.
Intra-ethnic divisions have been as relevant as transethnic solidarities to the declining primacy of race. Daniels (2005) cites Shamsul's concept of several competing 'nations-of-intent', or ways of envisioning the nation. The idea is that two people who are classified by the state as belonging to the same ethnic group can have very different interpretations of that grouping and its place in the nation-state. For example, one bumiputera could espouse the vision of a Malay-dominated plural society nation, while another could advocate the pluralized nation supported by many non-Bumiputeras. Daniels (2005) shows how, despite government efforts, "representations are 'twice born' in publicly instituted forms and in individual minds... 're-born' as 'mental' representations in a manner that often puts the hegemonic perspective at risk" (p. 274).
When people of different races, and particularly an unprecedented proportion of Malays, began to unite around their common dissatisfaction with the regime, the government evoked the alleged potential for communal violence. However, Mandal (2003) cites Khoo Boo Teik, who believes that such potential only realistically existed in the government's imagination. It used footage of Indonesian unrest to try to make its point, but the movement continued. The government had maintained control over Malaysia as a collection of ethnic communities, legitimizing identities for the regime, but many in the movement had moved on to express themselves as individual agents, uniting under project identities demanding things like a free media, an independent judiciary, and a reduction in the ethnicization of politics. Overall, however, the threat worked well enough in an electoral sense, as the Reformasi movement itself became racialized during the 1999 campaign and failed to convince a sufficient number of people to vote beyond communal lines.
Despite containing a significant number of non-Malays, the activists of the Reformasi movement itself were mostly young, middle-class Malay men (Weiss, 2006). In a movement challenging the ethnicization of politics, this may at first seem discouraging, but it is actually very significant. For UMNO, it represented a crucial loss of hegemony as the self-proclaimed voice and protector of mainstream Malays. In 1970, the organization had championed the New Economic Policy (NEP), ostensibly “to reduce and eventually eliminate poverty, and to correct economic imbalances, so as to reduce and eventually eliminate the identification of race with economic function” (Hassan & Lopez, 2005, p. 114). In the context of the aforementioned racialized association between 'Malayness' and poverty, and the construction of society as a collection of monolithic racial communities, this was effectively a program of affirmative action for Malays. However, the government's application of the Policy was not only race-based, but very elite-based. It can be argued that after thirty years, and in the midst of the regional financial crisis, non-elite Malays would no longer accept this central shortcoming of the Policy. Alienated from their own ethnic elites, non-elite Malays, the children of the NEP itself, would protest in the streets with a greater sense of being individual citizens with cross-cutting interests and identities.
In 1970, the first of the Policy's twin stated goals, “to 'eradicate poverty' regardless of race” (Jomo, 2004, p. 3), included the provision of social services and public utilities, the increase of income and productivity through improved technology and agriculture, and the increase of job opportunities in modern sectors through education (Jomo, 2004). On the face of it, this first goal met with great success. In just twenty years, the poverty rate in the peninsula dropped precipitously, from 49.3 percent to 15 percent (Roslan, 2001). It should be mentioned, however, that with growth like Malaysia's in the 1970s and 1980s, a drop in absolute poverty can obscure a significant rise in income inequality. In fact, “(U)nder the NEP, there was no official commitment to reducing income inequality except between ethnic groups” (Jomo, 2004, p. 6), and it actually rose within ethnic groups, especially among Malays. Curiously, this corresponded with a sudden unavailability of official government statistics on the trend, but Roslan (2001) believes it is continuing, at least among Malays. Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohammed looked back on the program in 1998 during the financial crisis. “The NEP, it must be iterated, was not concerned with making all the bumiputeras earn equally, or share equally, the wealth distributed amongst them… The intention of the NEP was to create in the bumiputera community the same division of labour and rewards as was found in the non-bumputera communities, particularly the Chinese” (Mahathir, 1998, p. 33-34). As inequalities increase, maintaining the racialized character of the political system becomes both more difficult and more necessary in order to control the populace. That is, ever poorer Malays must be made to feel common cause with their ever richer elites, and importantly, not to feel too much affinity with poorer Chinese and Indians who may be just as oppressed by their own elites.
It should be stated at this point that the NEP was implemented at a time when the limitations of Import Substitution Industrialization were being seen in much of the developing world. Malaysia was experiencing “a new phase of development characterized by three processes: export-oriented industrialization, a rapidly growing state sector assisted by financial public enterprises, and the emergence of party capitalism” (Verma, 2002, p. 69). The NEP heavily racialized these processes of economic globalization, with political and developmental consequences.
The implementation of the second goal, “to restructure society to eliminate the identification of race with economic function” (Jomo, 2004, p. 12), proved even more racially charged than that of poverty eradication. It again explicitly sidestepped the issue of class in favour of race (while arguably aggravating the former), pushing for an increased Malay presence in modern sector employment, managerial control, and corporate and stock ownership. It also sought to create more Malay entrepreneurs (Roslan, 2001). The 1970s were characterized by increased state intervention to make these goals happen, including a shift in funding away from poverty eradication and toward restructuring (Jomo, 2004). By the turn of this century, Malays were only underrepresented in sales, administrative, and managerial positions, and their proportions had increased significantly even in these (Jomo, 2004).
The 'restructuring' of share ownership is perhaps the best example of privileging Malay elites through policies presented as helping Malays as a whole. By the late 1980s, the government had encouraged over two million Malays to participate in its Amanah Saham Nasional (ASN) trust agency, but in an incredible concentration of wealth among elites, “about 1.3 per cent of all eligible bumiputeras owned 75 per cent of all ASN shares!” (Jomo, 2004, p. 14). As trust agencies held only nine per cent of total bumiputera shares by 1999, “[c]learly, wealth accumulation by the state on behalf of the entire bumiputera community has been abandoned in favour of private accumulation by individual bumiputeras, although for private aggrandisement, much of this accumulation has been heavily reliant on government dispensation” (Jomo, 2004, p. 13). The enrichment of political elites required the political support of people beyond the elites. This has been secured through a continued emphasis on alleged ethnic affinity, despite a lack of common economic interests between Malay elites and Malays as a whole.
When the legitimacy of the nation-state is called into question by forces of economic or cultural globalization, so too is the legitimizing identity it promotes. Mahathir staked much of his government's legitimacy on economic stability and success, even to the extent of openly subordinating some civil liberties to that goal. Barisan Nasional was portrayed as guardian of the corresponding legitimizing identities, those of three separate ethnic groups living in harmony under a communal 'grand bargain' with primacy for the Malays. UMNO's legitimizing identity was that of cultural and economic guardian of all Malays. Thus, the chaos of the financial crisis was viewed by many as a challenge to the government's legitimacy, and opened the door to a questioning of its legitimizing identities. In an illiberal democracy such as Malaysia, reform involves not only ideological shifts, but institutional ones (Weiss, 2006), demanding involvement from actors outside electoral politics. Malaysian civil society played a central role in the Reformasi movement.
Civil Society Organizations and the Reformasi Movement
Civil society organizations have a long history in Malaysia. From the earliest days, the preponderance of religious and ethnic associations reflected the racialization of society. With Islamic revivalism in the 1970s and 80s, Malay organizations began to shift focus away from ethnicity toward democracy. Many political NGOs started in the 1980s, but the government put down a simmering intellectual rebellion in 1987 with the arrest of 106 activists under the ISA in what was known as Operasi Lalang (Hassan & Lopez, 2005). It was an attempt to limit political activity to the realm of parties and elections, over which Barisan Nasional had near-hegemony. The Reformasi movement of 1998 and 1999 saw a similar proliferation of NGOs making their views known (Hassan & Lopez, 2005). Abbott (2004) believes that the repressive domestic period between Operasi Lalang and Reformasi actually made civil society much more sophisticated in its transnational activities. However, many democratic transition theorists believe that no matter how resilient civil society becomes under such conditions, a crisis of legitimacy or an elite crisis is necessary for civil society to democratize in an authoritarian regime (Haggard & Kaufman, 1995). Guillermo O'Donnell and Philippe Schmitter (1986) believe that "there is no transition whose beginning is not the consequence - direct or indirect - of important divisions within the authoritarian regime itself" (p. 19). They suggest that these elite divisions often stem from economic liberalization, a common event in modern globalization. In Malaysia, Case (1999) suggests that the Asian financial crisis initially caused losses for business elites and lessened access to formerly lucrative patronage networks for Malay political elites.
Reformasi originally emerged and grew in a very ad hoc manner. The twin catalysts of the Asian financial crisis and the arrest of Anwar Ibrahim brought people into the streets in a rather spontaneous fashion, and while in a mid-1999 survey, 85% of those surveyed agreed that "Malaysia needs a political, economic, and social re-assessment" (Weiss, 2006, p. 134), there was little agreement on the ultimate goals of the movement. A wide range of suppressed grievances came to the surface. Civil society organizations cannot be said merely to have joined the voices of discontent. They had spent years actually building the normative shifts that emboldened people to protest at all. Many of these organizations' characteristics were invaluable to Reformasi. While the government had focused on ethnicity and economic stability as primary issues, for at least three decades civil society had sought to educate Malaysians on non-ethnic issues affecting them all. As Weiss (2006) notes, "it is hardly surprising, then, that when an economic downturn left even the primary beneficiaries of thirty years of communally oriented development policies dissatisfied with the results and future prospects of ethnic parties and politics, they saw 'NGO issues' as compelling alternate grounds for political action and allegiance" (p. 163). Thus, CSOs possessed a great deal of credibility during Reformasi. Under authoritarianism, these diverse groups had learned to trust each other and focus on what they had in common, that is, they had built up coalitional capital (Weiss, 2006). As they did not contest elections, they focused instead on changing the consciousness of people, which is necessary if actual institutional reforms are going to take place (Weiss, 2006).
Malaysian civil society organizations had networked for years, but the degree and manner of their coalition formation during Reformasi was notable. Before that time, a common complaint had been that civil society was divided along ethnic lines, and that "ethnic appeals were the ones that mobilised popular support" (Brown, 2001, p. 6). In the wake of Anwar's arrest, two large coalitions, Gerak and Gagasan, were formed, each including both CSOs and opposition political parties. The latter put out a joint declaration calling for "the right to freedom of speech and assembly, the right to a fair trail and impartial hearing in a public court of law and the abolition of the ISA" (Abbott, 2004, p. 90). They were joined three months later by the Movement for Social Justice, or Adil, founded by Anwar's wife. All of these brought together actors not only of different classes and political stripes, but of different ethnic and racial groups (Abbott, 2004). The noted democracy theorist Alfred Stepan stresses that such horizontal cooperation is vital for CSOs if they are to be effective actors for democratization (Stepan, 1988). Castells (1997) emphasizes that "a networking, decentered form of organization and intervention" (Castells, p. 362, emphasis original) is the main agency of new social movements.
Perhaps Farish Noor (1999) said it best about the early days of Reformasi: "It is precisely because of its lack of exhaustive content that the concept of reformasi has become so effective as a tool for political and ideological confrontation... [The project's] openness and unfixity prevents any attempt to foreclose or fulfill its promise in narrow and exclusivist terms that would spell an end to its pluralistic and democratic potential" (p. 6, 13-14). However, Prime Minister Mahathir would call an election and the spontaneous social movement given a face by NGO coalitions would have to formalize further to challenge the government electorally. Castells (1997) would not be surprised that opposition political parties sought cooperation with CSOs and the movement at large. He believes they have reached their limit as independent actors for social change. He sees social movements as the actual locus of social change, while saying that political parties (perhaps in new incarnations) are still vital to its institutionalizing it. "They are influential brokers rather than powerful innovators.” (p. 360)
In April 1999, the NGO Adil was replaced by Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People's Justice Party), and boasted 100,000 members in its first month (Abbott, 2004). By June, after heavy negotiations, Keadilan had united with the opposition political parties PAS and the Democratic Action Party (DAP), among others, to contest the election as the Barisan Alternatif (Alternative Front) coalition (Weiss, 2006). PAS is the Islamic Party of Malaysia, and the DAP is a secular socialist party largely dominated by ethnic Chinese. In creating their election platform, they agreed on ten core issues (Weiss, 2006). This platform was contentious, born of the developing CSO/opposition party nexus. Overall, the depth of cooperation between civil society organizations and the political opposition was unprecedented, as was the inter-ethnic makeup of the former. At times it was difficult to discern the line between civil society and party politics. Many prominent activists became advisers and even candidates for the first time.
Though many in Reformasi were skeptical of Anwar Ibrahim himself, the fact that his case inspired a large number of Malays to protest may have opened the way for protest by all races on all kinds of issues. Castells (1997) mentions 'prophets' as one of the agencies voicing identity projects aimed at changing cultural codes. Anwar Ibrahim became a catalytic symbol crucial to the launch of the movement, though so many other collaborative actors must be given credit for what it achieved.
The Relationship Between Religious and Racial Identities in the Reformasi Movement
Islamic CSOs figured prominently in the aforementioned deep cooperation between civil society and opposition parties during Reformasi. Indeed, over the years, religious identity has posed perhaps the greatest challenge to the hegemony of racial identity. In particular, Islamic opposition parties have attempted to end UMNO's political hegemony over the Malay population, and if the 1999 general election results are anything to go by, they have had some success. Anwar Ibrahim was an influential activist in Islamic student organizations in the 1970s. His acceptance of an invitation to join UMNO and his quick promotion to its highest levels was seen by some as a real coup for Mahathir, one which strengthened the prime minister's Islamic credibility. Conversely, Anwar's 1998 sacking after explicit and graphic accusations of sodomy was seen as a deplorable attack on both Anwar and the type of Islam he was seen to represent (Hooker, 2004). Especially among the Malay Muslim community, religion appears to be gaining salience as a source of resistance identity for those dissatisfied with the government, its elite-centred focus on race, and the inequality that has brought. In a 1999 survey, nearly half of respondents (92% of whom were Malay) indicated religion as the primary characteristic to look for in a candidate or party, while only nine percent (almost all of whom were Malay) preferred those supportive of their racial group (Weiss, 2006). Recall Castells' hypothesis that in the network society, project identity increasingly grows not from Gramscian civil society but from communal resistance. In a society where the government promotes racialization, Gramscian civil society has been made up largely of ethnic organizations that legitimize that way of looking at society. Thus, groups resisting this and seeking the transformation of the state-promoted racialized social structure will increasingly emerge around identities other than race.
For many, Islam represents an identity that trumps both the nation-state and in some cases even ethnicity in terms of its age, global influence, and most importantly, moral legitimacy. The borders of the nation-state are considered a colonial legacy antithetical to the worldwide unity of the umma, or community of believers. Early Muslim scholars travelled widely before the imposition of the nation-state, fostering this cosmopolitan community. Similarly, the large number of Malaysian Muslims that have studied in other Muslim countries and in the West have contributed to the pan-national Islamic revivalism that started in the 1970s. Focusing for a moment on the fundamentalist strain of this revival, in opposition to what its adherents may claim, Castells (1997) feels that "Islamic fundamentalism is not a traditionalist movement. For all its efforts of exegesis to root Islamic identity in history and the holy texts, Islamists proceeded, for the sake of social resistance and political insurgency, with a reconstruction of cultural identity that is in fact hypermodern... Islamic identity is (re)constructed by fundamentalists in opposition to capitalism, to socialism, and to nationalism... which are, in their view, all failing ideologies of the post-colonial order" (p. 16-17).
In the wake of the Asian financial crisis, the nation-state and its legitimizing identity were called into question by the former's apparent inability to defend its citizens against forces of globalization. Civil society organizations (CSOs), including Islamic ones, networked and united as never before under project identities seeking institutional reform and social transformation. The shift leading to the crucial participation of Islamic NGOs had been taking place for some time. While in the 1950s and 1960s, Islamic CSOs had focused more on Malay ethnic concerns, thus reinforcing the legitimizing identity of the state, Hassan and Lopez (2005) notice a transformation toward issues surrounding democracy in the 1970s and 1980s which coincided with Islamic revivalism. With widening wealth disparities within the Malay community under economic globalization, ethnicity was losing its primacy and Islam transformed into a resistance identity with global connections. It is this resistance identity, despite attempts by the state to co-opt it, which transformed into a significant component of the project identity of the Reformasi movement.
Othman (2003) lists the dual aspirations of many in these new Islamic resistance movements. Not only do they want their societies to be more Islamic culturally and politically, but they strive for "freedom of expression and greater participation in the political process of their respective states" (Othman, 2003, p. 117). This was definitely true of the Islamic parties and NGOs of Reformasi. ABIM, the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement founded by Anwar Ibrahim in the early 1970s, intensely pursued the government for 'Corruption, Collusion, and Nepotism' during Reformasi, and many of its leaders joined Keadilan (Hassan, 2002). Non-Islamic CSOs collaborated with Islamic groups in 1998 and 1999 wherever they could find common ground, including on questions of human rights, corruption, and the prominence of ethnicity in Malaysian politics. However, it is telling that non-Muslim CSOs still avoided the subject of the place of Islam.
Given the strong association between Islam and the Malay ethnic group, the rising importance of religion cannot be seen as an outright abandonment of racial identity. However, it definitely represents a questioning of both government conduct and the worldview that government promotes. Mehmet (1990) has cited inequitable development as the greatest explanation for Malaysia's Islamic revival. Clive Kessler goes so far as to call the success of Islamic parties in Kelantan a manifestation of class conflict (Verma, 2002). As evidenced by the failures of the New Economic Policy, the government's application of its racial policies was not yielding results for all. Mehmet calls Reformasi a "grass-roots response to top-down cultural and economic restructuring imposed by authoritarian elites" (Mehmet, 1990, p. 97). When the Asian financial crisis meant that more Malays (and crucially, Malay elites) were suffering, alternatives to the government's racialized vision gained appeal.
PAS, the largest opposition party in Reformasi, was formed by radical religious leaders who broke away from UMNO in the 1950s. Their power base was rural, conservative Malays, and their early ideas of Malayness were based largely on ethnic identity. However, they have since shifted more to challenging UMNO as being un-Islamic. Forming governments in the northeastern states of Kelantan and Terengganu, they have increasingly identified Islam with Malayness, helping to change Malay political identity from predominantly ethnic to increasingly religious in a multiracial society (Verma, 2002). Though perhaps unable to capture power federally, by effecting this shift, Islamic opposition parties and CSOs can destabilize the government by claiming the religious legitimacy it craves.
Amira Bennison (2002) says that in early Islam, "the umma writ large was neither ethnic nor political. Instead, it gained tangible form in the juridical sphere: to be a Muslim meant adherence to Islamic law, the Shari'a" (p. 76). In modern Malaysia, Islam is political, juridical and effectively ethnic. The country's constitution states that "Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation" (University of Richmond, Article 3(1)). Islam is interacting with and at times overriding ethnicity in the juridical sphere, as separate Shari'a courts under each of nine state sultans have retained jurisdiction over Muslim family law and 'Muslim offences'. These laws are to be applied to Malays, as Article 11 allows each ethnic group (presumably the elites) to manage its own religious affairs, altering the individualism of political rights, emphasizing communal identity (Verma, 2002, p. 97), and colocating it with religion. This in effect makes religion a political issue. There is reason to believe that religion may usurp race as the primary category used to serve political purposes.
As much as Mahathir's power was based on maintaining society's racialized nature, his actions often contributed to raise the profile of religion. He sometimes encouraged Islamization to co-opt potential PAS supporters, and sometimes painted them as extremists. In 1988, he implemented the amendment splitting legal jurisdiction between shari'a courts and civil courts, substantially in favour of the former (Othman, 2003). At the same time, he evoked a loss of rights for non-Muslims under an Islamic state, seemingly convincing a sufficient number of ethnic Chinese and Indians to vote for Barisan Nasional. Hooker (2004) suggests that "it was the non-Malays and non-Muslims who helped Barisan Nasional regain two-thirds majority, and not the Malays" (p. 165). Barisan Alternatif, while much less ethnicized, was not completely devoid of ethnic and religious rhetoric. As mentioned, Reformasi failed to topple the ruling coalition in 1999 in part because it failed to convince enough Malaysians to forgo their ethnic ties at the ballot box.
Traditional Media, New Media, and the Reformasi Movement
Malaysians were dissatisfied with their government's handling of international finance and transnational Islam, two hallmarks of modern globalization. Their resistance was unique in Malaysian history in that it made use of another such hallmark, the internet. Mainstream media are largely controlled by both links to governing parties and draconian legislation, from the Printing Presses and Publications Act to the Sedition Act and the Internal Security Act. However with the arrival of the internet, the government had to weigh similar censorship for the new technology against its incredibly lucrative potential. In 1994, Malaysia became the first country in Southeast Asia to allow public internet access. The Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC), envisioned as a new Silicon Valley, became a Mahathir pet project. In 1996, the government pledged not to censor the internet so as to attract foreign investment, culminating in the MSC Bill of Guarantees and the Communications and Multimedia Act of 1998 (Rodan, 2004). Mahathir's authoritarian regime was caught between the need (or desire) for international capital and the effect that the technology could have on his leadership. The financial crisis compounded the pressure from both sides. Castells (2003) sees this dilemma as central to the changing politics of the information age and the network society.
Just as the financial crisis and Anwar's firing sparked Reformasi, so they seemed to spark the uptake of the communication tools used to wage the movement. Before Reformasi, only a quarter of a million Malaysians, or one in eighty, had internet access. This number grew enormously upon Anwar's arrest, as did the number of Reformasi websites and hits on those sites (Abbott, 2004). Noting the disparity between the street protests and how they were covered in the mainstream media, many Malaysians turned to the internet for information. At one point during the protests, the mainstream media's circulation dropped by as much as one-third (George, 2005). Under certain conditions, this represents a crucial development in media control for Castells, as citizens become accustomed to accessing information from sources not subordinated to the state. Though Malaysia's government continues to avoid true press freedom, "(f)or the years to come, nation-states will be struggling to control information circulating in globally interconnected telecommunication networks. I bet it is a lost battle" (Castells, 2003, p. 259).
Indeed, during Reformasi, an important potential of the new technology was that of building informational bridges for citizens beyond the groups they usually support. Brown (2003) notes that during the movement, previously divided opposition parties and groups chose to link to each other's websites. Thus with one click, PAS supporters on the east coast, with little previous desire or opportunity to engage with the west coast, Chinese-based DAP, could find themselves on that party's website.
Some choose to apply Marshall McLuhan's (1964) idea that new media improve the political quality of content. However, Cherian George (2005) believes there is a danger in overstating the impact of technology alone in combating authoritarianism. He compares Malaysia and Singapore to highlight what he calls the 'penetration/participation paradox'. That is, "a country with lower penetration levels of a medium may, paradoxically, exhibit superior utilization of that medium than a country with higher penetration" (George, 2005, p. 903). With similar government restrictions, and despite Singapore having many more computers and internet connections per capita, Malaysia's alternative political presence online is much more active, developed, and organized, and thus more impactful (George, 2005). It is George's assertion that while online journalism needs both computer and social networks, the latter may be much more important, supplying people, money, moral support, and ideas. In this category he includes opposition parties, CSOs, and offline alternative media. Regarding Malaysia's top alternative site, run by PAS, George says, "Singapore has no contentious website remotely as successful as Harakah Daily because it does not have an opposition party like PAS - formidably organized, well endowed and strongly ideological" (George, 2005, p. 912). The venerable human rights NGO Aliran runs its own website, provides content for others, and was instrumental in the Charter 2000 media reform movement. Long-repressed alternative print newspapers spawned sites, retaining loyal readers (George, 2005). On the ground during the protests, those who had computers obtained information, printed flyers and distributed them to countless others, vastly increasing the internet's power through social interaction in what is known as the "amplification effect" (Abbott, 2004, p. 85).
The Reformasi movement was an indicator and manifestation of wider, ongoing trends regarding racial discourses in Malaysian politics under the conditions of globalization. The Barisan Alternatif coalition failed to gain power in the 1999 elections, and by 2001, it appears that the ethnic nature of some of its constituent parties had overcome its non-ethnic rhetoric. Mutual distrust between PAS and the Democratic Action Party caused the latter to leave the coalition in 2001 (Weiss, 2006). As for the movement's catalysts, by the 2004 elections, Mahathir had overseen a return to relative economic health and stepped down, while Anwar Ibrahim remained in prison. The 2004 elections were Barisan Nasional's strongest showing since 1955. Still, political, social, and economic conditions are now fundamentally different than those upon which the dominant discourses of race and race-based identity were originally built and imposed. Globalization has altered the economy, civil society, religion, and media in ways that change the relationship between power and identity and provide possibilities for change.
Saliha Hassan (2002) draws a few conclusions about the potential of post-Reformasi political activity among CSOs. She states that it will depend on the organizations' "legal, political and cultural legitimacy, the expansion of civil society, the emergence of a policy consensus within a pluralist setting, the state of inter-ethnic relations, the coherence of state strategy, and economic advance and transformation" (Hassan, 2002, p. 214). Leftwich (1993) offers a similar assessment. Indeed, as the financial crisis helped spark Reformasi, recovery from it under Mahathir seemed to deflate the movement, helping Barisan Nasional regain its majority in 2004. However, Hassan (2002) believes the rather young membership of many groups can bring their coalitional capital to future opportunities at institutional reform. Most activists are urban professionals, varied in their practices, philosophies, and organizational approaches, and many favour holding a non-political identity and a non-ethnic bias, which offers the possibility of innovative inter-CSO and CSO-state relationships. In Hassan's (2002) opinion, to effect change both institutionally and in CSO-state relationships, political CSOs must focus on the common well-being of all and refrain from speaking for exclusive and narrow interests based on class, ethnicity or religion. She goes on to say that failing to do so actually risks "jeopardizing the continuity of constitutional democratic regimes" (Hassan, 2002, p. 215). In other words, if CSOs allow themselves to regress into the communal divisions promoted by the state, they do little to change the institutions hampering their own political participation. Marcussen (1996) notes the paradox that strengthening civil society by extending political participation requires the precondition of strengthening the state. In an authoritarian state like Malaysia, the very existence of CSOs shows at least a limited degree of tolerance for them in the political discourse, but this must be expanded.
Religion appears to continue to gain ground on race as the primary form of identity among Malays. Weiss (2006) concurs, but is optimistic about the prospects for a less-segregated future. However, two recent court cases show that the repressive confluence of religion and ethnicity is still significant, at least in the juridical sphere, where Shari'a law often trumps constitutional law. In 2007, Malaysia's highest court decided that Lina Joy, a Malay, could not legally convert to Christianity by removing the word 'Islam' from her identity card. It reportedly cited legal precedents giving Shari'a courts jurisdiction over civil cases involving Malays. Muslims are not allowed to convert under Shari'a law (British Broadcasting Corporation [BBC], 2007). Also in 2007, Revathi Massosai was seized by Islamic authorities and held for months in a so-called Islamic rehabilitation centre after seeking to change her registration from Muslim to Hindu. She is not an ethnic Malay and was raised Hindu by her grandmother. However, her parents were Muslim converts, making her Muslim by Malaysian law and thus subject to similar restrictions (Kent, & British Broadcasting Corporation, 2007). These cases are causing non-Muslim opposition parties to protest, no doubt emboldened by civil society and alternative media, with whom they developed deep coalitional capital almost ten years ago. However, without such dissent from a significant number of Malays, the government is unlikely to alienate a growing Islamic constituency and relent on these issues.
Opposition media attempting to address such issues continues with difficulty in Malaysia. Shortly after the 1999 elections, the government reduced the publication frequency of the main opposition newspaper Harakah (Rodan, 2004). In the mainstream, Chinese-language newspapers had historically enjoyed a little more critical freedom than their counterparts, but in 2001, Nanyang Press was bought by the MCA, the Chinese constituent party of Barisan Nasional, and many journalists resigned or were fired (Rodan, 2004). Foreign media also continued to be targeted, as individual issues of their publications sometimes waited weeks for distribution approval (Rodan, 2004). Heavy-handed measures increased the popularity of online publications, but these were not immune either, as a 2003 raid on the offices of alternative media website Malaysiakini showed. The fact that the person responsible for the Malaysiakini raid, Ahmad Abdul Badawi, is now prime minister, suggests that significant and sustained action will be needed to achieve media independence (Rodan, 2004). Civil society and alternative media have been vocal and united on issues of press freedom since Reformasi.
If, as recent history suggests, momentum for reform hinges not only on catalytic events but on overall economic health, there is reason to believe that forces of economic globalization may help spark a future movement. In 2007, a top European Union envoy called Malaysia's New Economic Policy protectionist and discriminatory, suggesting it may be a stumbling block in securing a free trade agreement. At the same time, concern over the NEP has stalled similar talks between Malaysia and the United States (Netto, 2007). If Malaysia's own citizens could not cause decisive institutional change in this respect in 1998 and 1999, perhaps the next catalytic moment will include economic pressure from global trading partners. If that happens, globalization (in the economic sense), by providing another such moment, will have contributed directly to shifting the place of race in Malaysian politics and society.
In assessing the impact of globalization on the place of race in Malaysian politics, it is important to see the Reformasi movement for what it was: a momentary glimpse of wider trends of social change in the country. Castells (1997) refers to the "decentered, subtle character of networks of social change that makes it so difficult to perceive, and identify, new identity projects coming into being" (p. 362). Weiss believes that "[F]undamentally, ethnicity is eroding as the key determinant of political behavior. The Malay and Chinese communities alike are now split... As the priority accorded to communal solidarity slips, other issues come into focus, particularly Islam, corruption, privatization policies, environmental security, judicial independence, individual freedoms... The shift toward judging UMNO and other parties on their performance, rather than just on their ideological stances as communal champions, represents a revolutionary if slow change" (Weiss, 2006, p. 150). Thus, despite the movement's failure to effect decisive institutional change in 1998 and 1999, there is reason to be optimistic that coalitional capital and normative shifts will continue to build, waiting for the next catalytic moment. I would like to end this paper with Castells' (1997) comments on the new sources of social change in the information age and the network society, which were evident in the Reformasi movement and are evident in Malaysian society as a whole:
Because our historical vision has become so used to orderly battalions, colorful banners, and scripted proclamations of social change, we are at a loss when confronted with the subtle pervasiveness of incremental changes of symbols processed through multiform networks, away from the halls of power. It is in these back alleys of society, whether in alternative electronic networks or in grassrooted networks of communal resistance, that I have sensed the embryos of a new society, labored in the fields of history by the power of identity. (p. 362)
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