Political Elites and Ethnic Politics
By: Romzi Ationg, PhD
Centre for the Promotion of Knowledge and Language
Universiti Malaysia Sabah
This book is a result of my interest in the federal political elites’ role in the expansion of ethnic politics to the periphery state of Sabah in Malaysia, a state where I live. This book argues that ethnic politics has been an important feature of Malaysia’s political life since even before its formation in 1963. Despite being part of Malaysia, however, the East Malaysia state of Sabah historically was devoid of such politics. But since the formation of Malaysia, there has been a long decline in ethnic tolerance and harmony in Sabah due to the federal elite’s success in expanding ethnic politics there. This book presents a systematic discussion on the following questions: How did the governing elites in Kuala Lumpur successfully expand ethnic politics to Sabah? Why was it important for the governing politicians to expand such politics to the periphery state? Why did the public allow this to happen?
By carrying out in-depth ethnohistorical investigation into the role played by governing federal politicians in generating ethnicity in Sabah’s politics, this book notes how ethnic politics can be developed, escalated and diffused. It describes how the federal political elite’s decision to export West Malaysia’s model of ethnic based coalition government eventually established ethnicity as a feature of Sabah politics due to competition and collaboration between federal and local political elites, and competition between local politicians who elicited responses along ethno-religious lines from the public. For their part the people of Sabah came to accept the expansion there of ethnic politics and its principles of consociational democracy under pressure from the federal elite.
From a policy perspective, the findings presented in this book suggest that abandoning ethnic-based democracy and policies is crucial in providing more universal benefits to the citizenry and preventing full-fledged conflict within an ethnically and religiously diverse population. While assuming that such move will provide benefits to the citizens and the country, the ethno-religious difference shall remain a key issue in the contemporary plural societies when the suggestion is disregarded. Thus, it is important to stress that abandoning ethnic-based democracy and policies become inevitable.
I am grateful to the Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP) Scholarship, and the University of Malaysia Sabah (UMS) and the Malaysian government for providing me financial assistance to undertake the research in which this book is based, a book that provide an opportunity for me to express concern about the risks that arises due to ethnic politics.
Romzi Ationg, PhD