In this seminar, Dr Azhar Ibrahim details the reasons and extent to which progressive voices in Malaysia are now marginalized and populist voices are gaining ground.
Malaysia Studies Programme
Urbanization, Consumption and Culture Seminar Series
Wednesday, 12 February 2020
– The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute invited Dr Azhar Ibrahim to give a seminar on the emergence of populist discourse in Malaysia since the 14th
General Election. Dr Azhar is a Lecturer at the Department of Malay Studies, National University of Singapore. His research interests span the sociology of religion, intellectual development in the Malay world, critical literacy and sociology of literature.
Dr Azhar Ibrahim (right) details the reasons and extent to which progressive voices in Malaysia are now marginalized and populist voices are gaining ground. Dr Geoffrey Pakiam from Malaysia Studies Programme at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute moderated the seminar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
Dr Azhar started his presentation by reviewing how discourse in Malaysia has been shaped by different social groups, with each group dominating a particular era. In the first decade after independence, academics played a pivotal role in shaping discourse, but Islamic groups began to occupy an intellectual space by the 1970s. A new generation of intellectuals educated overseas in the West emerged in the 1990s, and the group sought to propagate more liberal values. Meanwhile a significant portion of students in Malaysian universities also became dissatisfied with campus restrictions against political activism, and subsequently established their own progressive circles, independent of the state apparatus. Progressive groups played an important role in Pakatan Harapan’s victory in the 14th General Election, as cosmopolitan messages reduced the appeal of ethno-centric sentiments propagated by UMNO.
Dr Azhar then explained how progressive groups have largely withdrawn from the public discourse since May 2018. A significant number of progressive intellectuals and activists are now incorporated into the Pakatan Harapan administration, leading to leadership vacuums in numerous progressive organisations. In contrast, populist groups have gained salience since the 14th General Election, partly through the medium of independent publications, especially online. These writings are championed by a group of non-mainstream publishing houses, and are commonly suffused with historical romanticism, constructive narratives revolving around alleged displacement of Malays and marginalisation of Islam. Such publications have served as an important platform to propagate Malay supremacist ideas. Dr Azhar noted that populist independent literature is gaining widespread popularity among young urban Malay adults. Recent endorsements of such publications by some senior Malaysian academics have heightened the influence of populist groups.
During the question and answer session, topics raised included the role of anxiety in right-wing discourse; financial sponsors of populist groups and independent publications; reader profiles; as well as the impact of independent publications on Singapore Malay communities. The seminar drew 30 participants from diverse backgrounds including academia, civil service, the private sector, and the public.
The seminar drew 30 participants from diverse backgrounds including academia, civil service, the private sector, and the public. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)