JSPS ESP Project Special Seminar (4/11)

JSPS ESP Project Special Seminar


Ethnicity and Class: Divides and Dissent in Malaysian Studies


Date:  Tuesday, 11 April 2017, 13.30–15.30

Venue:  Lecture Room A (5th floor)


Abdul Rahman Embong

Emeritus Professor in Sociology of Development

Principal Research Fellow

Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS)

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (National University of Malaysia)


Ethnicity and class, two major paradigms constructed during the British colonial period, have shaped Malaysian studies till the present. Very few concepts other than ethnicity and class have triggered as much polemics among scholars, public intellectuals, policy-makers, and activists in Malaysia. This is especially so in debates over political economy, state power, social change, and the perennial question, ‘Who rules, who gets what, who wins, and who loses?’ Ethnicity has become the dominant paradigm in academic analysis, and it shapes government policies, public opinion and people’s thinking. Ethnic preferences are so entrenched that they form a major cause of divides and dissent in society, and a millstone that constrains social cohesion and progress. Adopting a historical/retrospective approach this Seminar identifies four defining episodes or watersheds in post-WWII Malaysia that bear significantly on the complex relationship and contestation between ethnicity and class. Those episodes are: (1) Post-war agenda of crafting the state, and envisioning the nation 1946-48; (2) Social engineering under the New Economic Policy 1969-71 and nation-building; (3) Envisioning a multiethnic developed nation through Vision 2020 and Bangsa Malaysia; and (4) Post-2008 transition trap: Reigning in ethno-nationalist resurgence, and moving towards a new Malaysia. It is suggested that the ethnic paradigm, being a social construction, may change and can be changed. However, efforts to change it should be guided by a non-ethnic, inclusive and class-based paradigm that is at the same time sensitive to the complexity of the mediation between ethnic consciousness and cross-ethnic class solidarity.