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Democracy and minorities in a plural society : a Malaysia case study

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posted on 02.03.2017, 01:28 by Raina, Ajay
This thesis argues that Malaysia’s democratic deficit, as consistently reported in the freedoms and democracy normative audits by prestigious international monitory organisations like Freedom House and The Economist, is a consequence of structural, rather than procedural, infirmity. Unlike a liberal democracy which assumes politically equal citizens, the Malaysian regime is one that de jure allocates political capacity differentially to citizens according to their ethno-religious identity. In other words, the valid source of claims on the state is not a free, equal and autonomous citizen. It is instead this primordial corporate identity into which the “individual” is supposedly alienated. Moreover, the space of corporate identities is fully ordered by a dominance relation that assigns “rightful” place to each identity. This relation underlies the Malaysian political sphere and defines its majority and minorities. Sociologically, identity-cleavaged societies are traditionally explained in terms of “plural society” classical models of Furnivall and Smith. Politically, their peacetime governance is explained in terms of classical “consociation” models of inter-identity elite cooperation and authority-distribution of Lijphart, Eckstein and Gurr. There are many advantages that these approaches offer, for example they are quite efficient at modelling the ontology of the public spheres of plural society polities. But they lack a frame of external reference, a norm so to say, by which to evaluate the standard of “democracy” in them. On the other hand, the normative “democracy” audits use a very broad brush of substantive and procedural variables to do such evaluation. This thesis presents an alternative minimalist perspective in that instead of developing the operating picture of the political sphere from monitored institutional and mass values variables, it measures the conceptual distance these regimes are at relative to Dahl’s fundamental normative requirement of a liberal democracy. This is his substantive proviso of “political equality” that underscores all institutional guarantees of a Dahlesian liberal democracy. In brief, I measure the extent of institutionalised political inequality in Malaysia, which is representative of a major sub-class of plural society regimes in which government selection is done by periodic suffrage, a class of regimes I call identitarian. Political equality, therefore, provides the normative frame of reference to judge the democratic deficit in identitarian regimes. It is shown that any other detailed system of variables, for example the one employed by the Freedom House, is isomorphic to political equality in terms of testing for democratic salience or deficit. In this thesis, political equality, or lack thereof, in Malaysia is mapped in three domains: preferences, opportunity and belief. It is empirically tracked in the institutions of Malaysia’s social contract, its Constitution, and the laws that issue forth therefrom and cross-referenced to actual statistical data across these three domains. Thus are the hypotheses on Malaysia’s democratic deficit validated and the potential of the much championed imminent transition to “real” democracy evaluated.


Principal supervisor

Greg Barton

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Social and Political Science Program

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts