Friday, 25 January 2019 09:20

Majority rule, minority rights

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As the dust on the May 9 election has settled, Malaysians are now fixating on what the new government has to offer.  For many, the rise of Pakatan Harapan was not only a matter of dethroning the previous administration but also marked the dawn of a new era for the nation. The era of “Malaysia Baharu” or New Malaysia, represents a promise for major institutional reforms, a renewed commitment to democracy, moderation, progressive and inclusiveness.

However, seven months into the transition, the new administration has faced various challenges. Many of them fall under the majority-minority dynamics where the basis of rights, obligations, and exercise of political power are contested between the Malay-Muslim majority and the non-Malay minority.

While such political framework has always defined Malaysian politics — under terms such as identity politics, race-based politics or political Islam, this dynamic is further accentuated after the 14th General Election.

Polling institutions showed that only 25-30 per cent of Malays voted for PH, while the rest was divided between Umno and Pas. Additionally, a survey leading up to the election also revealed that 35 per cent of Malays consider Malay rights and its associated issues as their primary voting drivers (Merdeka Center 2018).

Consequently, the current political configuration is bound to create strong contestations between the conservative Malay-Muslim majority and the diverse minorities that form the base of PH supporters.  

For instance, one of the first challenges faced by the new administration was the controversy surrounding the ‎minority LGBT community. Advocacy groups were quick to call for the normalisation of LGBT in Malaysia following three public fracases: on rumours that an ‎LGBT activist and self-proclaimed gay was being appointed as a special officer to a minister; the ‎portrayal of two LGBT activists as Malaysian heroes in a Penang art exhibition; and ‎ the public caning of two accused lesbians in Terengganu.‎

Another controversy falling into this majority-minority dynamic is on the ratification of ICERD. The government’s initial attempt to ratify the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) was met with overwhelming resistance by the Malay Muslim majority but uniformly supported by the non-Malays.

While the government ratification plan includes eight other UN conventions, ICERD received the full brunt of the backlash due to its purported conflict with the special positions of Malays and Bumiputeras. On Dec 8, an Anti-ICERD rally organised by Malay Muslim NGOs, Umno and Pas garnered around fifty to sixty thousand participants, the largest street demonstration to be held in Kuala Lumpur.

There is also a recent controversy drawing public ire especially from the Malay Muslims where Attorney-General Tommy Thomas, Chief Justice Richard Malanjum, Minister Liew Vui Keong and lawyer Siti Kasim shared a dance floor in a gala dinner. Points of criticisms ranged from issues of judicial ethics, political consistency and culture. Social media trends on the matter revealed that the majority Malay Muslims and the non-Malays are divided, in which the latter is seen as more approving.

In these contexts, how can we resolve this seemingly perennial conflict between the majority and minority? We must first shift the conventional paradigms that pits majorities and minorities as ontologically opposed and mutually exclusive, and where one is deemed superior to the other.

The first step to do this is to recognise that the fundamental relationship between the majority and the minority is a “feedback loop”, where the fate and welfare of both groups depend on each other.

A democracy in which some constituents (minorities) are not entitled to reasonable participation, or where others (the majority) wield disproportionate influence, is not democratic at all. This also entails that corrective or preventative measures regarding majority-minority relations should follow a balanced approach.

Ideal corrective policies should concern themselves with two things. First, decisions to remedy cases that (supposedly) infringe minority rights must be subjected to prior analysis based on a clear criterion (as opposed to vague or doubtful ones). In such cases, there must be sufficient evidence of tyranny so as to prevent the second concern, which is the invasion of majority rights due to inappropriate or disproportionate remedial policies.

Legitimate concerns on the impact of normalising LGBT on the lives of the Muslim majority and other religious communities, the integrity of family institutions, and its implications on public health must be taken seriously.

In the case of ICERD, where the constitutional provisions on special rights are involved, any further action must be preceded with open and inclusive public consultations with Bumiputera stakeholders (i.e. civil society, parliament members) and its constitutional gatekeepers (i.e. the Council of Rulers). If indeed Malaysians are ready to move forward and abolish any forms of affirmative policies, such decision should be decided in a transparent and consultative manner which strives to avoid any suspicions of ulterior motives.

Concerning the issue of fraternising between separate government branches, the subjectivity surrounding its legality or whether it breaches the judicial ethical codes is perhaps harder to determine.

In Malaysia, understanding these multi-dimensional perspectives is vital to developing a political structure that balances between majority rule and safeguarding minority rights. Any disproportionate influence, from either side, is detrimental to society and the longevity of the state.

From an Islamic perspective, this framework is in line with the Quranic depiction of ‎human diversity as a divine norm (Q30:22) where humans are enjoined to appreciate, ‎learn from, and get to “know one another” (Q49:13) in peaceful coexistence — not in constant conflict.


Wan Naim Wan Mansor is an analyst at the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS Malaysia), specialising on Malaysian political Islam and identity politics. He can be reached via This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Published in: New Straits Times, Friday 25th January 2019

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