Principles of Democracy: Majority Rule, Minority Rights

Democracy is the rule of the people, for the people, and by the people. But what happens when the people disagree? The majority can easily tyrannise the minority, hence it must be balanced by minority rights. Just as democracy must guarantee the expression of the popular will through majority rule, it must guarantee that the majority will not abuse its power.

This article is part of our Principles of Democracy series. Read our introduction article to find out, “What is Southeast Asian Democracy?”

“Democracy is truly a beautiful system. You are allowed to choose the work you like. You have the same rights as other people. And, democracy means that I don’t need to worship and bow my head to the president or ministers or other nobles. Indeed, this too is a triumph of democracy. And, you may do as you please if you are still within the legal boundaries.

“But, if you don’t have money, you will be paralysed and unable to move. In a democracy you can buy whatever you like. But, if you don’t have money you can only watch the stuff you want. This is also a kind of victory for democracy.”

Pramoedya Ananta Toer, It’s Not an All Night Fair (1951)

Democracy is the rule of the people, for the people, and by the people. But what happens when the people disagree? What happens if their interests directly contradict each other? How do we make decisions then?

In practice, democracy is often thought of by its most popularly understood principle: majority rule. When something is voted on, the side with the most votes wins, whether it is an election, a legislative bill, a union-management agreement, or a shareholder motion in a corporation. Sometimes, when there are more than two choices, it is deemed sufficient for a plurality to be decisive, instead of requiring an absolute majority. Thus, when it is said that “the people have spoken” or the “people’s will should be respected,” the people are generally expressed through this majority.

The principle of majority rule has several functions. First, it establishes a clear and easily understandable mechanism for making decisions. A majority of 50 percent plus one (or the biggest number in the case of a plurality) decides an issue or question. This ensures that when decisions are made, more people are in favour than against. When decisions are made by slim majorities, the outcome may seem unfair to the “near-majority” that was on the other side, but that principle of majority rule is essential both in ensuring that decisions can be made and that minorities could not prevent the majority from deciding an issue or an election. Otherwise, a minority holding economic, social, and political power would use its power to dominate the majority of the citizens, thus instituting the antithesis of democracy: minority rule. 

Throughout history, rule by a minority has been justified in various ways. These include the force of arms (e.g. “might makes right”) where violence (or the threat of it) is used to keep a minority in power; religion (e.g. “divine right” or “mandate of heaven”) where religion is used to manipulate people in subservience; and some form of superior quality (e.g. “princeps”, “technocratic rule”, “benevolent dictatorships”) where a minority group assert superior intelligence, enlightenment, education, or some other quality which elevates them above the rest of the people and gives them a right, or even responsibility, to govern without sufficient consent.

“All citizens of Malaya enjoy equal, fundamental rights and opportunities in the political, economic, educational and cultural spheres, regardless of race, creed, colour or sex…

“It shall be regarded as a fundamental duty of citizens, through their elected institution, to direct special attention to the advancement of any section of the people who are, or who may be found to be, in a condition needing such advancement, be it economic, social, educational or cultural.”

Sections 6 and 21, “Rights and Duties”, The People’s Constitutional Proposals for Malaya (1947)

For Southeast Asia, the most odious example of minority rule is our recent colonial past, where a small number of Europeans and other elites ran large Southeast Asian colonies for their own benefit, extracting massive amounts of natural resources for the benefit of themselves, their companies, and their countries, and passing legislation to advantage their own interests rather than those of their subjects. The British, Dutch, French, Spanish, American, Chinese, German, Japanese, and Portuguese empires all have held territory in Southeast Asia. In 1955, reiterating the continuing threat of colonialism at the Bandung Conference, Soekarno condemned colonialism “in the form of economic control, intellectual control, actual physical control by a small but alien community within a nation”. This control was often underpinned by arguments that the indigenous people were inferior and unable to govern themselves. In 1899, Aguinaldo pointed out the hypocrisy of American imperialism using this argument in the Philippines when, one hundred years prior, they had rejected the exact same argument made by the British about the American colonies (“You repeat constantly the dictum that we cannot govern ourselves… [when] a little over a hundred years ago, it was extremely questionable, when you, also, were rebels against the English Government, if you could govern yourselves.”)

However, majority rule also cannot be the only expression of “supreme power” in a democracy. The majority can also easily tyrannise the minority. Hence, the crucial corollary: majority rule must be balanced by minority rights. Just as democracy must guarantee the expression of the popular will through majority rule, it must guarantee that the majority will not abuse its power to violate the basic and inalienable rights of the minority. It is not enough that such rights are guaranteed on paper; minorities must also be confident that they will be protected from a majority using its numbers, powers, or influence to oppress, subjugate, silence, or exclude them. Otherwise, they have no incentive to participate in the system and may withdraw their consent from being governed. 

What is a “Minority”?

What is a minority? It is important to note that minorities, despite their name, are not necessarily numerically inferior. Women, for example, are regularly discriminated against even though in many populations they form a majority. Instead, being a minority is about the discrimination you face and/or your lack of power and influence to protect your rights. In Southeast Asia, the default mode of society in every country usually assumes a person to be cisgender, male, straight, of the dominant ethnic group, and speaking the dominant language. People who do not conform to that definition are often discriminated against, not always deliberately. Likewise, you may be of the default mode of society and yet have political views which are not of the majority, and thus in a political minority. 

Conversely, in all Southeast Asian countries, a small number of people (such as traditional aristocracy, the super rich, religious elites, and authoritarian political elites) have a disproportionate influence over society through the exercise of their wealth or authority. They are a minority, but they do not lack rights; on the contrary, through the exercise of their power, they are able to deprive others of their rights.

We thus define a minority as a person who, because of their political views or personal identity, suffers discrimination or whose access to social, economic, political, and/or cultural resources, rights, and/or opportunities has been limited.

Artwork by Karin Josephine.

This definition distinguishes between two overlapping and interrelated types of minority: minority political views (a person’s beliefs) and marginalised identities (e.g. race, age, class, gender, sexuality, etc.). The main difference is one of persistence, i.e. minority political views can become majority political views over time, for example by convincing other people and changing their minds; while marginalised identities rarely do (e.g. children or transgender people are unlikely to form the majority of the population or exercise significant political power). Both types of minorities are important and must be protected.

What matters in determining this is the lived experience of minorities. Many people in Southeast Asia on paper have protected rights, but in practice experience discrimination or are discouraged from exercising those rights. The 2008 Constitution of Myanmar, for example, recognises four main religions, namely Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Animism, as “religions existing in the Union”. Buddhism, however, is privileged with special recognition and protection as the religion adhered to by the majority of Burmese. The Constitution further states that “[t]he Union may assist and protect the religions it recognises to its utmost” [emphasis added]. In reality, the constitutional promises fail to translate to actual protection—quite the opposite, since the Myanmar government continues to discriminate against thousands of Muslim Rohingya and openly refuse their right to full citizenship, which encompasses their access to legal status, rights, membership, and political participation. The government perceives Rohingya minorities as “refugees” and “illegal immigrants” flooding into the border since the 1970s’ Bangladesh Liberation War. 

The Constitution of Indonesia is even more explicit. It imposes obligations on the state to protect religious freedom and practices. Clause (1) of Article 28E asserts that “[e]very person shall be free to choose and to practice the religion of his/her choice”, while the following clause guarantees the seemingly unconditional rights of practising one’s faith and/or religion—that “[e]very person shall have the right to the freedom to believe his/her faith, and to express his/her views and thoughts, in accordance with his/her conscience”. The reality on the ground tells a different story. In Aceh, for example, the regency of Aceh Singkil gets around these obligations by restricting the number of churches in the province to only one church and four chapels for its 10,000 Christians. As a result, there are approximately two dozen illegal churches in the regency, which the government periodically orders to be closed, and from time to time they are the subject of arson attacks. In 2015, locals, with the help of police officers and militias, demolished churches in Singkil that they claimed to be “illegal” without the right building permits.

In Southeast Asia today, the most obvious example of discrimination against minorities is that of populist nationalism, where governments declare that they are acting in the interests of a majority of people who comprise the “nation” or the “national interest”.  As noted in Self-Determination, the concept of the nation is one that autocrats have often abused to oppress their political opponents, by re-defining the national identity to exclude their opponents. This then justifies their oppression or silencing of those deemed to be “anti-national”. This category often includes their political opponents, gender and sexual minorities, ethnic or linguistic minorities, or minority political views. Around Southeast Asia, we often see people who disagree with the government being tarred as anti-national and as traitors on the most spurious grounds, labelled “communist”, and people who do not fit with the government’s definition of identity as being discriminated against, excluded, or even subject to genocide. 

The dangers of the persecution of minorities are well recorded and examples are numerous. There are obvious examples such as the Rohingya and other minority ethnic groups in Myanmar, left-wing political activists throughout maritime Southeast Asia during the Cold War, and the Khmer Rouge’s murder of ethnic minorities, intellectuals, and political opponents. But there are many other less obvious examples. Ethnic, gender, sexual, religious, linguistic, and class minorities are persecuted every day in Southeast Asia. Discrimination occurs in all societies but is particularly acute in Southeast Asia as state-sponsored discrimination is part and parcel of the post-independence attempts to create coherent nation-states. The examples of genocide listed above are all state-sponsored, and equally, it remains completely legal to discriminate across Southeast Asia on the basis of many forms of identity and political views.

Even being a minority does not prevent people from discriminating against other minorities. Singapore’s government has long expressed its fears of being a Chinese-majority, Buddhist and Christian-majority island amidst indigenous and Muslim countries, but actively discriminates against its own Malay, Indian, and Muslim minorities. Discrimination also happens even within the same minority group, with Christians in Indonesia discriminating against Jehovah’s Witnesses for not conforming to mainstream Christian beliefs.

But the most obvious example of minority discrimination against majorities is those of political and economic elites who use their power, influence, and wealth to impose their views on the majority of the population. Many Southeast Asian countries are dominated by a political minority who are generally composed of economic and military elites, who trade power within their group and seek to exclude other groups from attaining political power. To protect their privilege, some of these minority groups go as far as writing their perpetual hold on power into constitutions, so as to “safeguard” the “nation” while also jealously defining who belongs to that “nation”, such as the military in Thailand and Myanmar, the Vietnamese Communist Party, or the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. In other countries, elections are neither free nor fair, such as in Singapore and Cambodia, enabling power to be monopolised by a small group. 

It is important to note that minority rule should not be confused with those who identify with minority identities being in power. A Chinese-Indonesian President, an Indian-Singaporean Prime Minister, or a Muslim Thai Prime Minister are all fine and indeed would be admirable if they are democratically elected and lead governments which uphold all the principles of democracy. But conversely, a minority leader alone is not proof of minority rights. Minority leaders have also indulged in the persecution of other minority groups, or of the majority in pursuit of their own interests.

Artwork by Karin Josephine.

Why Minority Rights are Important to You

One common misunderstanding of minority rights is that it only applies to certain groups who openly identify in ways which are obviously a minority, or even just to minorities who are historically oppressed. However, it is very important to note that minority rights exist to protect everyone, because everyone is a minority in some way and at some time.

Identity is a complex and multifaceted concept, and scholars across various disciplines such as sociology, psychology, and cultural studies have debated and studied the nature of human identity. We tend to assume identity is fixed and unchangeable, but there is substantial evidence to suggest that it is, in fact, mutable and contingent on various factors.

Firstly, identity is contextual. How you identify often changes depending on where you are and who you are interacting with. A Chinese person from Medan may stress their Chinese identity more in Medan, which has a large ethnic Chinese population, and their Indonesian identity while in the rest of the country. A person from Manila may feel they are wealthy when in the rest of the Philippines but poor in the capital, as it has a far higher concentration of wealth and higher living costs. A Patani Malay may feel they are in the majority while in the south of Thailand, and feel like they are in the minority while elsewhere in the country. This concept is known as intersectionality: a person is composed of multiple social identities (such as race, gender, class, etc.) which intersect and interact. Identity is not a singular, fixed entity but rather a dynamic, interrelated set of social categories that change over time and in different contexts. There are identities popular conceived of as mutually exclusive that in fact have people who identify as both (e.g. Chinese or Indian Jews). 

Second, one’s identity changes over time and is highly influenced by a person’s interactions with society, culture, and other circumstances, and thus changes as those factors change. As children develop into adults, they naturally explore their identity, becoming more curious about their cultural heritage, their place in the local community, their gender and sexuality, and other aspects of their identity (Berger & Luckmann, “The Social Construction of Reality”, 1966). For example, the phenomenon of “third culture children” (people who were raised in a culture other than their parents’ or the culture of their country of nationality, and also live in a different environment during a significant part of their childhood development years, and consequently form an identity that is a hybrid of all these influences) shows how influential context is in shaping our identity. The rise of digital media and globalisation has also contributed to the fluidity of identity. Global migration and cultural exchange have led to hybrid identities that transcend traditional national or ethnic boundaries (Appadurai, “Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization”, 1996). People can now perform and experiment with various identities online, reshaping their self-concept in the process (Turkle, “Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet”, 1999). Finally, people also naturally change as they age. Age is itself a marker of identity: ageism is a prevalent problem in many societies (Erikson, “Identity: Youth and Crisis”, 1968).

Thirdly, identity, especially in Southeast Asia, is sometimes beyond our control. In Southeast Asia, people have been rendered stateless by having their citizenship stripped from them, sometimes from something as simple as clerical errors, but also from malicious governments. Indigenous people have had their land taken away, condemning them to poverty. Marriages have been cancelled because they no longer fit into a government’s definition of what marriage should be. A person’s race has been reclassified for political reasons, or because the official categories changed over time. A person born in Singapore in the 1930s would have been told over the next three decades that they were British subjects, then Japanese subjects, then British subjects again, then Malaysian citizens, then Singaporean citizens. The Singapore government has stripped people of their citizenship for no other reason than supporting their political opponents. Rohingya were recognised as citizens of Myanmar in the 1947 Constitution but then excluded from citizenship in the 1982 Citizenship Law. Often, your identity also depends on your relationship to power. Minorities who have power (political, economic, intellectual, or otherwise) experience being a minority very differently from those without and can fight for their own definitions of identity. Foucault argued that identity is something that is produced and negotiated through discourse and power relations (Foucault, “Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-77”, 1980). 

Finally, our categories of identity are constructed, evolve, and sometimes even fade away. Group identities are often the result of “classification struggles”: group identity becomes a self-evident social truth often as a product of government censuses, interactions with group members, group spokespersons, lived experiences, marginalisation, and/or perceived political/socio-economic benefits of identifying a certain way over another. As part of the fight for sovereignty and independence, national identities (“Chinese”, “Indian”, “Filipino”, “Thai”) were invented and constructed in opposition to colonial oppression. In many cases they sought to connect to an idealised past. The meaning of “Malay”, for example, has changed drastically. It was originally proposed by the German physician Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752–1840) as one of the five races of the world. In the late 19th/early 20th century, it was used as a general term to describe the Austronesian peoples (in general, the indigenous people of Taiwan, Southeast Asia, Micronesia, New Guinea, Melanesia, Polynesia, and Madagascar). The people of the Philippines consider themselves “Malay” in a general sense and, in the 1960s, considered changing the name of the country to “Malaysia” to rid themselves of a colonial name. In Malaysia/Singapore, however, for political reasons, the term underwent the most drastic change, taking on a specific religious/linguistic/political definition: Article 160 of the Malaysian constitution defines a Malay as someone born to a Malaysian citizen who professes to be a Muslim, habitually speaks the Malay language, adheres to Malay customs, is domiciled in Malaysia, Singapore, or Brunei, and was born in those territories before independence day, 31 August 1957. It is entirely possible, and indeed not uncommon, for Malaysian-born minorities to convert to Islam to no longer be a minority. But the equally politically significant and multiethnic identity of “Malayan”, which itself was a rallying cry for nationalists and anti-colonialists in the 1950s and 1960s, has almost faded away entirely from public consciousness, and is now popularly seen as a historical artefact. 

Artwork by Karin Josephine.

It is common to assume that first, identities do not change, second, that even if our own identities change we will not be affected, and third, to resist other peoples’ identities changing. Three cognitive biases that are common to all humans are the recency bias, a cognitive bias that favours recent events over historic ones and often leads us to assume that how things are at the present moment is how things have always been in the past and will always be in the future; normalcy bias, a cognitive bias which leads people to disbelieve or minimise threat warnings, and hence lead us to underestimate how our own changing identities will affect our lives; and status quo bias, a preference for the maintenance of our current state of affairs, to overvalue the present, and to resist change.

Everyone is a minority in some way and/or at some point in their lives. Whether it is a changing aspect of your own identity, like age (being a child or a senior citizen), economic status, gender, ethnicity, language, religion (or lack thereof), ability; or a change in how state and society perceive your identity, perhaps because of a changing sociopolitical context; or simply because you have changed your location. That change, whether deliberate or inadvertent, can significantly change peoples’ lives. Minority rights thus do not simply apply to obvious minorities: they exist to safeguard everyone from oppression. For a democracy to function, it must protect minorities; for it to function well, everyone should recognise that they, too, are a minority or may become one, and therefore such protection is in their own interest.

This applies especially to political views. A defining characteristic of democracy is the people’s right to change who holds the majority in the legislature, and consequently the policies of government, through elections. This right derives from the people’s supreme authority. But this does not give the political majority carte blanche until the next election. Minority rights also apply to those who win their election but find themselves in the political minority in government, to those who lose their elections, and to those who lack representation.

As with personal identity, we must recognise that political views change. A person who identifies with a governing majority today may thus find themselves in the minority tomorrow when they change their views, or when the government changes. Equally, a minority view must have the right to seek to become the majority and possess all the rights necessary to compete fairly in politics, such as freedom of expression, assembly, and association. Otherwise, there would be perpetual rule, and the people who comprise the majority today would entrench themselves as a dictatorship. For the majority, ensuring the minority’s rights is a matter of future self-interest, since it will have to utilise the same rights when it finds itself in the minority seeking again to become a majority. This holds equally true in a multiparty parliamentary democracy where no party gains a majority, since a government must still be formed in coalition by a majority of parliament members.

The Constant Challenge

Democracy therefore requires minority rights equally as it does majority rule. But this is a constant and difficult balance. Majority rule is necessary for expressing the popular will and forms the basis for the legitimacy of the government. Since someone will inevitably disagree on any issue, full consensus (unanimous agreement) cannot be the basis for making political or legislative decisions. But it must also carefully ensure that, in upholding majority rule, those who formed the minority have been heard, have had a chance to participate meaningfully in the process, and will not be unfairly silenced or oppressed as a result of the decision. Indeed, those rights must be protected even if the minority does not participate or make itself heard. A minority’s rights must be protected no matter how alienated a minority is from the majority society. Otherwise, the majority’s rights lose their meaning. 

This difficult balance was debated by Southeast Asians as they sought to set up their own countries. Following the Indonesian Proclamation of Independence on August 17, 1945, Mohammad Hatta, Ki Bagus Hadikusumo, and Kasman Singodimejo proposed the removal of the Islamic elements, such as Shari’a law, from the draft Constitution. The trio argued that including such a clause would betray the representation of Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and adherents of other religious groups largely residing in Eastern Indonesia, who at this point were overwhelmingly underrepresented in the Board in charge of drafting the constitution. Aside from being perceived as discriminatory to Indonesian Christians—and other religious groups adherents—another concern had to deal with the possible refusal of Christian-majority Eastern regions to join the newly-formed Republic. Due to their arguments, the first principle of the state ideology of “Pancasila” was then changed from “belief in God with an obligation to follow Islamic sharia for its adherents” to “belief in the One and Only God”—consequently sealing “Pancasila” and the 1945 Constitution as nonsectarian (Fogg, 2019).

Likewise, in the heat of the debate over the proposed “Greater Malaysia” plan in 1961, for example, in which Singaporeans would have fewer constitutional rights than people from the Federation of Malaya, Sabah, and Sarawak, Lim Chin Siong pointed out that a country where certain citizens had fewer rights than other citizens was simply untenable. Such a practice was premised on fear and suspicion of a minority group, was designed to control the minority group, would lead to great resentment on both sides, and was simply a new form of colonialism. He predicted the failure of Malaysia if Singaporeans did not have the exact same rights as other citizens of Malaysia. He was subsequently detained without trial and was later proved correct: This exact issue became the fundamental division in the dispute between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur and led to Singapore’s separation from the rest of Malaysia in 1965.

In theory, the protection of minority rights is achieved through means such as respect for individual rights; freedoms of expression, assembly, and association; and strong and independent institutions which act to safeguard those rights. Those with power act in good faith to solicit minority views and participation. Minority views are given fair play in legislatures, the media, and in the public square. Governments accept that decision-making must take those views into account, even if that means it takes longer to arrive at a decision. Minorities participate in the making of decisions and the forming of policies which affect them. Elections are free, fair, and regular. Checks and balances make it difficult for majorities to achieve absolute power. 

In practice, achieving this is very difficult. Many of these problems are the same as democracy as a whole. For example, the challenge of representation. Who speaks for individual minorities? What happens if an individual within a minority group disagrees with the rest of the group, or with the elected leaders? How do we account for all views? What happens if protecting the rights of one minority seems to infringe on the rights of another minority? There may be minorities whose assertions of their rights clash with each other, or who argue that the protection of their rights requires others to be deprived of their rights, or who feel that other minorities are depriving them of their rights. There may even be people who seek to abuse the process, to assert their rights in a way that deprives others of their rights. 

Artwork by Karin Josephine.

Many prevalent arguments arguing against minority rights are often rooted in the idea that rights are “zero-sum”: asserting that protecting the rights of the many requires the sacrifice of the few. In Southeast Asia, one very common rationale given for the abrogation of minority rights is economic development for the nation or people, even framing it as a “necessary” sacrifice. This is a typical argument in favour of the abrogation of indigenous rights. For example, in 2020, members of the Marapu religion, an ancestral religion practised mainly in Sumba, Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia, were forced to yield their worship sites to a sugar manufacturing company, PT Sumba Muria Manis. As part of the aim to achieve national sugar self-sufficiency by 2024, the Jokowi government invited 10 sugar companies, including PT Sumba Muria Manis, to expand their business outside Java island, often at the expense of indigenous peoples’ customary land. In Singapore, foreign migrant workers are routinely subject to labour rights abuses, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, and confiscation of passports, in the national interest. Workers are frequently killed because they are ferried about like cattle in the back of lorries, for example, while Ministers refuse to mandate safety rules, arguing that this would increase costs for Singaporean businesses. Another common argument is moral—that certain minorities are destructive or corrupting influences and that individuals have the right to live their lives free of such influences. This is often the case levied against LGBTQIA+ people, even when their rights are legally protected, such as in Vietnam.

These arguments are often rooted in simple dichotomies with simplistic assumptions based on slippery slope arguments, but merely pointing out the errors is often not sufficient to change people’s minds. Protecting minority rights, in practice, requires trust, constructive discussion, and careful dialogue. Proponents should focus on deontological ethics instead of utilitarianism, make appeals to empathy and equality, and explore the many possible alternative solutions. Often, arguments against minority rights are rooted in broader challenges, like financial or food insecurity. Ultimately, the protection of minority rights is a difficult process that requires patient dialogue and negotiation.

Third, another common challenge is that minority rights are often framed in terms of a difficult political choice within a democracy: assimilation versus separation. While assimilation of a minority into the broader society offers a minority greater opportunities and political influence, it does so often at the expense of minority cultures, beliefs, and practices. On the other hand, preserving cultures, beliefs, and practices by insulating the minority reduces its influence within the majority political culture. Often, there is a spiralling effect as insular minority communities face discrimination and lack of economic opportunity, which reinforces a sense of social alienation, especially among the young. 

A better option is integration, a society where diversity is celebrated and embraced, where minority groups can both maintain their unique cultural identities and fully participate in the wider community. To a limited extent, Indonesia and the Philippines (particularly in Jakarta and Manila) have managed to achieve some of this. But the full achievement of such an approach requires decoupling the nation from the state in Southeast Asia (see Self-Determination). Another option is liberation, where minority individuals are empowered to work together to free themselves from oppressive social, political, economic, or cultural conditions and change how their identity is perceived. Two (partial) examples of the latter include women’s liberation or indigenous people’s rights movements in Southeast Asia, where the perception of both groups has changed, and their rights expanded, to the benefit of society at large. Both these options, however, require the advancement of democracy in other areas, including the protection of other rights such as Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Association, and Freedom of Thought, Conscience, and Religion.

Many of these arguments against minority rights, while simplistic, are highly prevalent and pervasive and should not be dismissed lightly. The issues of minorities seeking greater freedom, equality, autonomy, and protection against discrimination and unequal treatment remain at the heart of politics, protest, and conflict in many parts of the world. Usually, they are addressed through nonviolent means such as elections, protests, legislation, the courts, protection of native lands, education, and other efforts granting regional autonomy or specific rights and privileges. In some cases, minorities have taken up arms to achieve their goals, but this strategy is usually less successful. In a few cases, such as Timor-Leste, South Sudan, or Eritrea, minorities have successfully broken away to form a new country. Ultimately, due to the fraught nature of these issues and the misunderstandings that cloud our understanding, how we approach the discussion is crucial.

International Protection of Minority Rights

The 20th century’s history of targeted repression and killing of ethnic and national groups has made the protection of minorities from abuse by majorities one of the highest obligations of international law. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted after World War II in 1948, is the most widely recognized international treaty governing the practice of nation-states. The UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted in 1966, defines not just individual rights but also minimum protections for minorities. Article 27 asserts:

[P]ersons belonging to [ethnic, religious, or linguistic] minorities shall not be denied the right in community with the other members of their group to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.

The Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, (issued in 1992 by the UN General Assembly) and the Convention No. 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (adopted by the International Labour Organization in 1989) further define protections for ethnic, religious, and cultural minorities to preserve their culture, languages, and beliefs and protect themselves from discrimination. While these treaties establish clear international moral standards and have improved conditions for minorities in many places, the examples noted above make clear that the actual practice of the international community in protecting minorities from targeted repression is inconsistent, at best.

Case Study: Minority Races and Consociationalism in Malay(si)a, 1945 to present

Following the end of World War II and the British reoccupation of Malaya, the decolonisation of Malaya became inevitable. But Malaya was evenly divided between its Malay and Chinese communities, both of which comprised around 43% of the population, with slightly more Chinese than Malays. Around 10% of the population was Indian, with the remaining 3-4% composed of other small communities. The looming independence of Malaya sparked a discussion about what Malayan identity would be, especially in the context of the ideology of the nation-state. It was widely assumed that for Malaya to be an independent state, it also had to have a unique national identity. But what would that be?

Building a Malayan nation was, and remains, extremely problematic. British colonialism had never sought to build a nation, only to manage its colony for minimum fuss and maximum profit. Accordingly, the status of Malay rulers was emphasised to legitimise British rule. Malay subjects were kept out of the modern trading economy to avoid any transformation of Malay society (such as merchants becoming richer than their rulers). Massive amounts of Chinese and Indian capital and labour were imported to service the colonial economy, including tin mining, rubber tapping, and the free trade ports of Penang and Singapore. To preserve the peace, these communities were generally kept separate. Consequently, on the eve of independence, there existed multiple Malayas, in particular a Malay Malaya dominated by land-owning traditional aristocracy and a Chinese (and Chinese-speaking) Malaya dominated by wealthy urban towkays (mostly merchants and financiers), along with a significant Indian community and other communities who spoke multiple languages. How would an independent Malaya govern itself when most of its people did not even speak the same language, live similar lives, or imagine a common identity?

Complicating this was that all the communities perceived themselves as minorities. The Malay community noted how non-land wealth was overwhelmingly in the hands of the Chinese and Indians, who had higher levels of education and were better equipped for the modern global economy while Malays had been systematically excluded. As the indigenous people of Southeast Asia, they argued that they were dispossessed and discriminated against. The Chinese, meanwhile, noted that they had been systematically discriminated against by the British colonial government, which suspected them of being more loyal to China than to Britain (even though both were, by definition, foreign countries). Even those who were born in Malaya and whose families had been in Malaya for many generations were seen as less Malayan. Their language and education were systematically discriminated against, while the English and Malay languages had official status and English and Malay language education were subsidised by the government. The other smaller communities, overshadowed by the two biggest communities, naturally suffered from discrimination and neglect.

Political exigencies heavily influenced the answer to this thorny problem. In post-war Malaya, the nationalist leadership in Malaya’s two largest communities was split between conservative elites and progressive left-wing forces. In general, the Malay community was divided between the traditional elite class of English-educated aristocrats on the one hand and the leftist Malay nationalists on the other. The Chinese were divided between the elite capitalist class of towkays and the left-wing trade unions and intellectuals, in particular the Malayan Communist Party. In both cases, the left-wing sought to end colonialism, reform society to make it more equitable, and end the capitalist exploitation that was one of the defining characteristics of colonial rule. As part of this, left-wing forces also generally shared the long-term aim of building a new Malayan society which would overcome divisions of race, religion, and language.

These progressive ideas naturally threatened capitalist and traditional elites, and so the British, Malay, and Chinese elites, together with other capitalist elites, worked together to bring down the left-wing forces. This was justified, against the backdrop of the Cold War, by tarring left-wing forces as anti-national and part of an international communist conspiracy. The Malayan Emergency, declared in 1948, led to the destruction of Malaya’s communist left. The destruction of the non-communist left was mostly accomplished by 1963, using large-scale arbitrary and indefinite detention without trial of left-wing leaders, ostensibly justified by the formation of the new country of Malaysia (comprising the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah, and Sarawak).

In rejecting the socialist/left-wing vision of a singular Malayan society and identity, the elites instead sought to preserve the existing structure of Malayan society (with them at the top), by proposing a consociational arrangement: the rule, in a plural society, by an alliance of elites from respective racial groups. This was represented by the ruling Alliance coalition, which was composed of traditional and commercial elites from the three major communities: the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). Following the creation of Malaysia, the leaders of the indigenous groups in Sabah and Sarawak were also added to this arrangement. To put it simply, the Malaysian model for managing the rights of minority races was identifying racial groups and establishing a government composed of their leaders, divided into indigenous (“Bumiputera”), Chinese, and Indian groups. Through this, the government aimed to protect the interests of each major community. Welfare, education, and government spending and services are distributed unequally to the groups, chiefly advantaging the indigenous group, with the aim of correcting historical discrimination.

This arrangement was initially stable as it essentially replicated the existing arrangement of society. However, even at its inception, critics pointed out certain flaws. Firstly, identity is deeply personal and the “Malay-Chinese-Indian-Other” (MCIO) model was overly simplistic, never capturing the complexity of society to begin with. Secondly, the arrangement explicitly accepted that the non-indigenous Chinese and Indians ceded political dominance to the indigenous peoples in exchange for the rights of citizenship. This explicit agreement meant that the Chinese or Indians could never become politically dominant or equal, which meant that they would forever be politically subservient because of their race. Critics argued that it would be impossible to build a coherent nation if some citizens were always considered second-class citizens. Such an arrangement explicitly hardened existing boundaries in such a way that precluded any eventual transformation of Malayan society. In effect, it made the creation of a Malayan nation impossible, since it hard-coded racial division and discrimination into the country’s DNA in exchange for immediate stability.

This prediction has proven to be generally accurate as over the decades, numerous problems have arisen. In particular, the arrangement excludes hybrid identities, reinforces stereotypes, and has undermined the development of a shared national identity as people are encouraged to identify primarily with their ethnic group rather than as Malaysian citizens. Alice Nah’s work has demonstrated how Malaysians tend to think of Malaysian identity as a hierarchy with Malays as the “most” Malaysian, followed by Chinese and Indians. Emphasising racial differences has hindered social integration, leading to segregation and preventing the development of cross-cultural understanding and mutual respect.

Artwork by Karin Josephine.

Firstly, the arrangement rests on essentialising and policing boundaries of the racial groups. Within these groups, many do not conform to the stereotype and feel excluded. For example, the “peranakan-type” Chinese of Terengganu, many of whom trace their ancestry from the voyages of Cheng Ho in the 1400s. They retain their religious beliefs of Buddhist deity worshipping but speak the local Malay dialect, eat Malay food, follow Malay customs, and are often indistinguishable from local Malays. They see themselves as culturally distinct from the “Chinese” found in the urban centres of Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, or Penang. The Terengganu Chinese have different values and concerns and are deeply rooted in Terengganu. However, they are not considered indigenous nor a group of their own and instead are lumped in with the “Chinese” group. Consequently, some, particularly the younger generation, feel unrepresented in a government that speaks for either the “Malay” or the “Chinese”—not the people who have fluid and changing identities in between—but they will never have the numbers to have a political voice to speak for themselves. Other groups who fall between the boxes include Indian and Chinese Muslims and Malay non-Muslims. As Malaysia’s races continue to intermingle, acculturate, and nurture hybrid, pluralistic identities, the MCIO boxes will only become increasingly irrelevant.

Other groups have successfully navigated the system by changing how they are labelled. Historically, the  Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, and Java have a common heritage and were often governed together by pre-colonial kingdoms. However, due to an accident of history, post-31 August 1957 migrants from Sumatra and Java and their descendants are classified as “Indonesian”, and thus not “Malay”, even though they are for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from local Malays: They are indigenous to the region, speak Malay, follow identical or similar customs, are Muslim, and look the same. For many of these groups, such as the Baweanese, it has been a long and difficult path to change their racial classification from “Baweanese” to “Bumiputera” (specifically, “Malay”) to gain access to state-linked educational, occupational, and economic opportunities. Thus even as race is defined and delineated by the State, at the individual level it is also a personal political and economic choice to fight to be classified in a certain way.

Secondly, many minorities are not represented in this arrangement. These include the approximately 1% of the population who are not classified as Indigenous, Chinese, or Indian. These include people of European and Middle Eastern descent, such as the Kristang, a creole ethnic group of mixed Portuguese and Asian descent who are chiefly found in Malacca; the descendants of other colonial-era immigrants from around the British Empire, such as the Nepalese; migrants from other Southeast Asian countries, including Filipinos and Burmese; and many others. Non-citizens, such as migrant workers or refugees, also find it doubly complicated as they have both a lack of citizenship and a need to fit into racial categories to conform to expectations.

Even those who do fit into categories find great difficulty as they lack representation through the consociational arrangement. The Orang Asli (“first people” or “aboriginal people” in Malay), who are a heterogeneous indigenous population, are the oldest inhabitants of Peninsular Malaysia, and comprise less than 1% of the population. Their needs are often overlooked. In 2010, according to the Department of Statistics Malaysia, 76.9% of the Orang Asli population remained below the poverty line, with 35.2% classified as living in extreme poverty, compared to 1.4% nationally. The first (and only) Orang Asli candidate ever elected into parliament was in 2019.

Thirdly, the focus on race-based representation has meant that all policies are constantly seen through a race-based lens. This has made it difficult to pursue policies that are in the general interest. A corollary to this is that focusing on ethnic differences has led to other important social divides, such as class, gender, or regional differences, being overlooked. This prevents a more comprehensive understanding of social dynamics and inequalities on a national level and obscures solutions that may require country-level coordination or focus. Parties that advocate for a multiethnic Malaysia and a more progressive society are still inevitably labelled by race and have membership dominated by a single race, such as the People’s Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Rakyat, Malays), the Democratic Action Party (DAP, Chinese) and Malaysian People’s Movement Party (Gerakan, Chinese). Likewise, Sabah and Sarawak are dominated by parties which focus on the promotion of local rights rather than national parties, as both of the East Malaysia states chiefly frame their identities in opposition to West Malaysia rather than as part of a singular Malaysian identity.

This relates to a fourth problem. Because the arrangement rests on elite cooperation, it is ripe for abuse. Policies meant to address historic inequities, such as the New Economic Policy (NEP) which aims to reduce economic disparities between Malays and non-Malays, have disproportionately benefited elites within those communities who are best placed to take advantage of affirmative action, entrenching inequality within racial groups. More broadly, by emphasising group rights and representation, the system creates advantages for those who control the definition of identity and membership of the groups, as well as opportunities for patronage, corruption, and cronyism. Policies aimed at ensuring ethnic representation have been seen as undermining meritocracy, particularly in education and the public sector. This can lead to discontent among those who feel they are being unfairly treated due to their ethnic background.

Because being the elite representative of the community is extremely valuable, competition for leadership within the racial groups has led to political strife. From 1963-65 Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) sought to replace the MCA as the “Chinese” representative party in the coalition. The PAP argued that the MCA (and by extension, the Alliance) were not doing enough to take care of the Chinese in Malaysia. MCA supporters within the Alliance fired back, attacking the PAP’s record governing Malays and other minorities in Singapore. These accusations and counter-accusations inflamed racial tensions, which erupted into riots in Singapore in 1964. The conflict was a fundamental cause of the PAP’s decision to secretly separate Singapore from Malaysia in 1965. Leadership of the Malays has been contested between UMNO and splinter parties such as Semangat 46 (1989-1996), the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, PAS), and more recently the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, BERSATU), and the Malaysian Mighty Bumiputera Party (Parti Bumiputera Perkasa Malaysia, PUTRA). All these parties represent different visions of indigeneity in Malaysia but generally uphold Malay supremacy. 

Sixth, this arrangement rested on a particular political arrangement of parties. However, when many of those parties unexpectedly lost many seats in 1969 to parties arguing for a multiethnic Malaysia, it broke the political basis for this arrangement. This led to riots, the suspension of Parliament, and government by an unelected National Operations Council. Parliament was only restored in 1971 alongside the consociational arrangement, with the Alliance coalition essentially recast as the Barisan Nasional. The need to preserve “racial harmony and stability” has also been used to suppress dissent and criticism, limiting political freedoms and democratic participation. Criticism of the existing racial arrangement is, by extension, a challenge to the privilege enjoyed by the elites who benefit from the status quo.

This status quo is now proving very hard to shift, with Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim (as leader of a multiethnic coalition committed to social justice) recently telling a student that abolishing the system of university education racial quotas will lead to his coalition losing the next election to race-based parties, which would consequently entrench greater racial privilege within the system.

Artwork by Karin Josephine.

On the surface, this case study illustrates the complexities of balancing majority rule/minority rights and protecting marginalised identities within the diverse sociocultural context of Southeast Asia, especially when every racial identity considers itself marginalised. It demonstrates how trying to protect minority rights on the basis of essentialising broad categories itself breeds discrimination, marginalisation, neglect, abuse, and strife. It freezes those categories in ways which quite rapidly become irrelevant (indeed, they may never have been entirely relevant) as society evolves and people change. 

What does this case study then suggest for our management of other minority rights, such as women and other marginalised genders, sexual minorities, or class minorities? We tackle those issues by constructing categories of people—but are such essentialising approaches also doomed to fail precisely because they address marginalised people as a group? Do group-based solutions for tackling the issue of minority rights, which are more expedient and easy to implement, lead to greater difficulties down the road (such as membership of the group, representation and leadership of the group, inequality within the groups, and the silencing of those who disagree)? 

But more importantly, if we look deeper, this case study is also one of the lack of protection of minority political views. The stage was set for this approach because traditional and class elites sought to preserve their power by destroying their opponents (the left-wing/progressive political movement). As part of doing so, the minority political views of that group were tarred and attacked as anti-national. This included their vision for a singular identity that transcended race, among other views. This led to the dominance of a majority political view such that it has become the unconscious default framework for Malaysian politics and society. Unchecked, that political view has come to dominate Malaysia to the point where even those who are committed to unravelling the race-based Malaysian political system and building a multiethnic alternative find that they have to uphold it merely to stay in power, and find the status quo almost impossible to shift. To this day, it remains extremely difficult for advocates of a Malaysian identity that transcends race to even articulate their ideas, let alone fight for them, due to the historical associations of those views. Thus, the Malaysian case study is also a case study for the importance of protecting minority political views and how a lack of those protections can distort politics, society, and culture for generations to entrench discrimination.

Conclusion: We Are All Minorities

Majority rule is the easiest and simplest way of making decisions across large populations of people. It is a conceptually simple way of understanding democracy and is often how democracy is popularly understood. But equally, majority rule only applies if there is sufficient protection for minorities. Majority decisions must take into account all views and seek to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. As it is extremely rare for any decision to have unanimous support, it means there must always be a careful balancing act between majority rule and the rights of the minority.

Minority rights are not merely about marginalised identities or numerically fewer people, but also about minority political views and the right of those of minority views to change minds and strive to win power as the majority in the next election. 

Ultimately, we must recognise that we are all minorities in some way, and that our identities change and shift over time. Creating a system that seeks to protect the inherent dignity of every individual regardless of their identity or political views is in our own self-interest.  Likewise, we must recognise that the right of a minority to assert themselves cannot come at the expense of another minority, or the majority. 

In many ways, the issue of minority rights is a microcosm of the issue of self-determination, for minorities may also be considered imagined “nations” within the broader “nation-state” paradigm. Minorities often imagine themselves as part of a sub-group within the nation-state, drawing common cause with many other people whom they may have never met but who share similar characteristics. As with self-determination, the history of Southeast Asia shows that seeking to protect minority rights on a group basis (an imagined “nation”) is ultimately counter-productive. Group-based approaches to minority rights deepen boundaries between groups, essentialise group members, are ripe for exploitation, may lead to marginalisation or even discrimination within the group, and lead to people falling into the gaps between those groups. We argue, therefore, that like self-determination, minority rights are best protected on an individual basis. Only by seeking to treat each and every single person as unique and equally deserving of dignity and respect, can we truly protect minority rights, for ultimately, we are all minorities.

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