Posted by: danguard | July 4, 2009

State of Play: An Exposé on Malaysian State Coercion

The nature of my visit to Malaysia has given me an insight into this state, its government and institutions, which the average citizen and tourist would not be privy too. Consequently, I feel obliged to write up my observations in the hope that unknowing others, especially Malaysian citizens, will begin to question the society in which they find themselves and the coercive measures those in power utilise in order to preserve their authority.

To provide some historical context, Malaysia, since independence, has effectively been a one-party state, with the UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) dominating the Barisan Nasional Coalition. Stories of government corruption and growing support for the opposing Islamic Party has undermined the the state’s political authority in recent years, and dissenting voices have begun to speak out. When they do, however, they run the risk of being arrested under the ISA (Internal Security Act), a system initially created for detaining without trial suspected Communist armed insurgents, but which was maintained after the Communist threat had long-since disappeared. Consequently it allows the government to detain, without trial, anyone deemed as threatening the security of Malaysia, giving them a rather wide scope for interpretation. Last year alone, ten people were arrested under the ISA, with the official reasons still not known for over half of them, and the others including a blogger arrested for insulting Islam.

Clearly this is a dangerous legislative mechanism for a ruling party to be able to wield, particularly one as powerful and dominant as the UMNO which in essence does not have to answer to the electorate and is relatively immune to swing voting. What I say up to this point is not new, and there are those which have already risked voicing criticism, such as Tan Sri Thanabalasingam , whom I interviewed last week. I will now discuss some of my own personal experiences which I find are inherently interlinked and indicate a wider and more insidious problem.

I visited the National Museum last Sunday, and I was rather shocked at the selective history displayed and the coercive messages propagated in what should be an objective educational institution. First, in the exhibition documenting the nation’s history, the Japanese occupation is virtually omitted. More damning, however, is the story from independence to modern Malaysia. There is a video which shows an elderly Malay man with his Malay grandson, Indian grandson, and Chinese granddaughter (hmm…) all playing together happily in the garden. He goes on to tell them about ‘Merdeka’ and the story of Malaya’s independence. Interspersed with tales of British wickedness, is the overriding message of national unity, reinforced by the image of racial harmony displayed on screen. As you walk around the exhibition, it talks about how Malaysia was created by Malaya’s merge with Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak, after which it grew from strength to strength. There is no mention until right at the end, at the bottom of the display in small print, of Singapore’s departure after 2 years due to ‘disagreements’. Certainly there was no mention of the race riots that occurred between the Chinese and Malay populations, as this would contradict this myth of national unity that the curator, and I suspect political pressures from above, is propagating.

When I interviewed Lt.Cdr.(Ret.) Karu this week, what emerged strongly was how Indian and Chinese members of the navy were discriminated against for the benefit of Malay officers promoted ahead of them because of their race. He also told me how his son, a straight-A student, was denied a place at a local university because he was an Indian. Under the surface and the image of a harmonious, united Malaysia which the government would like to portray, is a prejudiced system which in fact exacerbates ethnic difference and inequalities rather than heals it. This uncomfortable truth is hidden from its citizens and from tourists (including potential foreign investors) through a carefully constructed and distorted representation of the nation through public forums, including the manipulation of history in the National Museum.

I have found my research efforts frustrated here through both linguistic and beaurocratic impediments. I appreciate the desire for post-colonial states to disassociate itself from the language previously imposed by the imperial power, however, bahasa melayu is yet another mechanism the Malay-dominant population and ruling party can use to solidify its privileged position. I am certain there are significant numbers of the Indian and Chinese populations who don’t speak Malay, and therefore, like myself, their access to official information becomes limited. How do you prevent a population from speaking out and criticising the state, something the government is clearly concerned with judging by the preservation of the ISA? One way is to restrict the population’s access to knowledge that allows them to formulate their arguments in the first place. As I have discovered, access to official historical documents, of the kind normally open to the public after 25-years in the UK and which I have been able to consult freely in Singapore, is restricted only to those in possession of a letter of reference from the government’s economic planning unit, and such bureaucratic processes are renowned for their complex, lengthy and frustrating nature in Malaysia I am told.

When I have spoken to Malaysians this week, particularly young Malaysians of voting age, they appear to have little awareness of the extent to which these problems exist. A selective memory of the past helps cover up the injustices which still exist today, and it is but one mechanism by which the ruling party, paranoid of losing its grip on power, is able to preserve its moral and political authority. This paranoia is evident in the continual existence of the ISA, and restrictive bureaucratic procedures which serve to limit access to knowledge to a select few personally endorsed by the government. In Malaysia, knowledge truly is power.



  1. Dan, just wanted to say that although I haven’t really commented on the blog, I’ve been reading it religiously every day there is a new post and have found it hugely interesting, and entertaining. The above post in particular has really shed light on a subject I, and I would suppose many others, know little or nothing about (a product of the state’s controlling influence perhaps), and has made me want to know more. That is a sign of good investigative journalism, a field I think not too far from that of a historian! Keep up the good work mate, I eagerly await your next post.

  2. To be honest it’s similar in both China and Japan, many Chinese don’t have a clue what happened at Tiananmen Square even those actually from Beijing! Why else do you think the Chinese have banned Google (ok so they have their ‘own version’), youtube, and blogs??

    The Japanese have practically erased kamikazee bombers from their history too.

    Very interesting to hear about your experiences though, as well as feeling like they charge you more because of your colour, again and rather disppointingly, common place in the middle east.

    From what I hear the US are rather dubious on their teaching, and to be honest no doubt the UK are too. Many, many things are written from history, often dubbed as being unimportant – strangely it’s usually women that are deleted, I wonder why that is…

  3. […] frustrations already covered under my tirade against Malaysian state coercion, I was pleased to ‘lock down’ my interview with L.Cdr(Ret.) Karu on Tuesday, which […]

  4. hi dan

    well, the view from the bar looked fantastic…. as idid all the research you’ve been doing. well done.
    sorry not been in touch recently, got excessively busy at work… but on hols from tomrorow. hurrah!!!!
    hae booked you 2 lovely days sailing from monday july 27th… me, you, gareth, simon and oli….geraint and fmaily booking sep……. when are you back in uk??? ill find out what clothese you need for sailing but don’t think any special… they give you life jackets etc

    any have email ed you as well..#
    love sian and simon

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