The Plural Society and Its Enemies

The Economist, August 2, 2014

In Mandalay in central Myanmar, another bout of bloody sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims recently left two dead and many injured. The riot was sparked by rumours that two Muslims had raped a Buddhist woman. The deaths brought to about 240 the number killed in sectarian clashes over the past two years. Most of the victims were Muslims.

Myanmar is just one of several South-East Asian countries recently forced to confront old questions of race and religion. In Malaysia, a prominent Malay Muslim leader, Abdullah Zaik Abdul Rahman, has been charged with sedition for accusing ethnic Chinese, a minority in Malaysia, of being “trespassers”. And in Indonesia the winner of the presidential election, Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, squeaked home after a huge early lead over his rival evaporated, in part because of unfounded rumours that he was a Christian Chinese rather than in fact a good Javanese Muslim.

These events may appear disparate, but they reflect a common thread running through the history of race and religion in South-East Asia. Specifically, they reflect the legacy of those colonial territories which one British academic and colonial administrator, John Furnivall, first characterised as “plural societies”. The British and Dutch Asian empires that gave rise to such societies have long gone, but the consequences of their creation remain. Indeed, the concept of the plural society is more relevant than ever for understanding and even predicting the course of events in the region, and especially in Myanmar–or Burma, as it was when Furnivall lived and worked there.

Furnivall was a Fabian socialist who arrived as an administrator in 1902 and married a local Burmese. Though he left the colony in 1931, he returned in 1948 to advise the first post-independence governments as well. Furnivall’s original description of the plural society is very different from the way “pluralism” has come to be understood in the West. Rather than referring approvingly to a rainbow of ethnicities choosing freely to live together, Furnivall coined the term to criticise the imposition of immigrant races on indigenous societies in the name of commerce and free trade. {snip}

For the most part, the immigrants, often destitute, who poured into these territories under European rule were Chinese. But millions of South Asians, many of them Muslims, migrated as well, especially to Burma, then administered by Britain as part of its Indian empire. Indians migrated in large numbers throughout the Malay world. The immigrants often provided manual labour, in Malaya’s copper mines and rubber plantations, for instance. But they also contributed to the entrepreneurial zest and trading connections that helped to create the wealth and vitality of imperial entrepots such as Rangoon and Singapore. Colonial Rangoon was a majority-Indian city by the 1920s. It boasted Armenian, Jewish and Chinese communities. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who was consul there at the time, described Rangoon as “a city of blood, dreams and gold”.

But as Furnivall saw it, the wealth came mostly at the expense of the indigenous Burmans in Burma, the Malays in Malaysia, the Javanese in Java and so on. Indeed, many such groups felt themselves to be elbowed aside by foreigners who came in under colonial protection.

For all that the plural society produced wealth, for Furnivall it was essentially brittle and unstable, lacking in any “social will” or shared sense of community. “It is in the strictest sense a medley”, he wrote; the different races “mix but do not combine. Each group holds by its own religion, its own culture and language, its own ideas and ways. As individuals they meet, but only in the market-place, in buying and selling.” He worried, therefore, about what would happen once the coercive power of the colonial authority was gone. Colonial protection was the chief impediment to immigrants being attacked by resentful indigenous peoples, or even clashing among themselves.

Post-colonial societies have been dealing with this worry ever since. Race riots in Malaysia and Singapore in 1969 pitted Malay against Chinese. They seemed to confirm Furnivall’s worst fears about “the whole society relapsing into anarchy” once the colonial power had gone.


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  • propagandaoftruth

    Buddhism is no more perfect than the Mona Lisa, but it does involve copious dousing with Truth, even ugly Truth. Some morbid sects meditated in charnel houses, staring at the decomposing bodies and remembering the implications.

    Islam is a charnel house of twisted and deadly ideology. Buddhists who stare at death fear not Islam, but deal with it as they must.

    Real Buddhists, of course, not Eloi poseurs, of course.

  • But I thought we were all one race–the human race. That’s the stock answer pushed out in comments sections in HuffPo and similar places. Somehow, the evil white race is behind ethnic clashes. It’s whitey’s fault. It always is in the minds of libtards.

    • Augustus3709

      White people don’t exist!

      …unless you can blame ’em.

      • It requires some curious mental gymnastics on libtards’ part to claim that race is just a social construct while simultaneously also blaming whites for everything.

  • MekongDelta69

    Multiculturalism has never worked any time in history, anywhere on earth.

    The reasons are too obvious to even waste keystrokes mentioning all of them…

    • IstvanIN

      It works under a very powerful government boot.

      • WR_the_realist

        Which is why the Democrats want a very powerful government boot.

        • Sloppo

          I see it the other way around. I think democrats/communists want multiculturalism because they know it can be used to “justify” an oppressive government with absolute power. Multiculturalism is part of the means … absolute power is the goal.

        • Strider73

          So do the Republicans. A GOP Congresscritter recently spoke the truth about why both parties lust after illegal aliens — the Democrats want their votes, the Republicans want their cheap labor.

    • rightrightright

      Our governing caste knows full well that multiculturalism degrades and obliterates the host culture which is exactly why third world hordes are being imported into the West. The “reward” is two-fold: the White creators of civilisation are marginalised and out-bred; the ruined, identityless geographical result can be more easily forced under world government domination, all without our masters being seen to stain their hands with our blood.

  • Ed

    Amy Chua’s, “The World on Fire” is a great read on this topic.

  • IKUredux

    Blaming European colonialism for the problems that current countries have is bullshit. First of all, show me an African country that is is better off now after imperialism is gone, and African nationalism is supreme? Ummm, I’m waiting. Seriously, what [email protected]#$%^ African country is better off now? O.K.., now prove to me that Africa would have been better off if it had never been colonized by Europeans. You know who would have been better off if Africa had never been colonized by Europeans? EUROPEANS!!!!

    • White colonial powers also did things like build railroads and ports, explore for minerals and develop mines and dig canals (the Suez Canal was a joint French-British project and the Panama Canal was a US project after the French gave up in 1881).

      They also introduced valuable cash crops. Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia today produce 72% of the world’s natural rubber, but rubber trees are native to South America, and were introduced to Southeast Asia by the British. Tea, native to China was introduced to India by the British, who wanted to break the Chinese monopoly on the product. India is the world’s largest banana producer; this plant was native to South America and was also introduced by the British. Coffee was native to Ethiopia, but Brazil and Vietnam are now by far the top two producers. The chinchona tree, native to Bolivia and Chile, produces quinine in its bark, a useful anti-malaria drug, but by the 1930’s Dutch plantations in Java were producing 97% of the world’s quinine. Sugar cane was native to India, but Brazil now produces over twice as much of it as India.

  • LHathaway

    “Specifically, they reflect the legacy of those colonial territories which one British academic and colonial administrator, John Furnivall, first characterised as “plural societies””
    And yet Thailand, which was never ‘colonized’ is faring worst of all?

    • rightrightright

      Thailand is made up of many different cultures and tribes even though never a European colony. LH, perhaps its situation would not be so dire if only it had been subjected to the colonial experience?

  • Usually Much Calmer

    Thank you, Mr. Wolff, for your deft curation. This was a subtle and relevant piece.

  • Augustus3709

    “The British and Dutch Asian empires that gave rise to such societies have long gone, but the consequences of their creation remain.”

    See, it is always White people’s fault.

    What did you expect, non-White accountability? Pff.

  • none of your business

    The Economist envisions billions of highly trained, competent, employees roaming the earth at their own expense looking for the lowest wages and worst working conditions and the Holy Grail of capitalism, the 20 hour work day.
    I read the Economist sometimes. The Economist and global low wage capitalism or whatever its ideology calls itself is anti White and most of all anti nationalism in favor of a global wage slave state.
    I remember 1 year. Thousands of English well qualified applicants were turned down for UK medical schools in favor of browns and blacks from all over the world. The Economist still ran articles claiming there were no native English and Scots capable of being MDs and advocating importing brown and black muslims and pagans to replace Whites in UK medical professions.

  • none of your business

    Excellent summary of contributions of the European colonial powers to world prosperity,
    Michael Scott

  • jayvbellis

    Got to go with the Buddhists here.

    And of all the low class, unemployed Muslim men accused of rape…

    Many are guilty. Their defense is that their victims dared showed their arm or heaven forbid, their face.

  • jayvbellis

    Please provide the name, photo, contact information of this Iman. We can have women getting in his face.