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Globalisation and Communal Identities in the Plural Society Of Malaysia

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Successful modernisation and global integration in Malaysia have opened up new possibilities and increased agency. At the state level, success has allowed its political leadership to act as spokesperson for the post-colonial world. Agency for Malaysians has increased as well, but with a specific twist. Not only has individual agency increased but - even more so - new forms of social control have been created. From the background of a plural society, valorisations accompanying modernisation and globalisation were perceived as favouring or disadvantaging particular ethnic groups. This has lead to a politicisation of ethnicity by which the maintenance of integration has been pursued through the development of social control mechanisms that have given rise to new communal identities.

Today, social control and Islam are closely interwoven. Islam provides a meaning system that links modernity and the modern present with a Malay past. Especially in urban areas, the equation “a Malay is a Muslim” has been changed to “a Muslim in Malaysia is a Malay”. The ambivalence of referring to universals like “post-colonialism” and “Islam” as ways of expressing Malaysian particularities is shown in the self-description of Malaysia as a successful “globaliser” and a post-colonial and/or Islamic country in the official mass media. Physically, this in turn is reflected in the architectural styles of mega-projects. Elsewhere it has been argued that globalisation has the potential to fragment societies. The question is whether this potential might lead to the emergence of a fragmented plural society in Malaysia.
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Keywords: Malaysia; agency; communal identities; mass media; post-colonialism; social control

Document Type: Original Article

Affiliations: Development Studies, University of Hohenheim, Germany

Publication date: 2001-11-01

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