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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