Asia exposed

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 August, 2011, 12:00am


For orchestrating the Utoya massacre in Norway with cold precision, Anders Behring Breivik has come to denote a new malady of the globalised world. Almost overnight, Europe's politicians and opinion leaders seem to have collectively chanced upon an epiphany: the far-right is no longer a far-fetched threat.

Yet to dismiss right-wing extremism as a uniquely European phenomenon may be a grave mistake. Asia, too, is exposed, with the heterogeneous nations of Southeast Asia being particularly vulnerable.

To see how this works is to first understand that while members of Europe's far-right movement are clearly Islamophobes, they are first and foremost anti-immigrant and cynics of multiculturalism. And, like Europe, parts of Southeast Asia also harbour extreme discontent over issues of immigration and integration among its population.

Foremost is Malaysia. Although cosmopolitan, the nation is home to an organised group of ultra-Malays upholding the ideology of ketuanan Melayu, or Malay supremacy, premised on the notion that Malaysia's ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities are pendatang, or settlers.

At its most benign, ketuanan Melayu can be gleaned from the government's affirmative action policies, which guarantee privileges in education and corporate ownership to Malays on the basis of their indigenous status. A more extreme manifestation is represented by the antagonistic non-governmental organisation known as Perkasa, whose mandate is to defend Malay rights from being disputed by Malaysia's minority ethnic communities.

Calls for the protection of 'local' rights have also been issued in Singapore. The government's liberal immigration policy contributed to the People's Action Party, Singapore's long-standing ruling party, suffering its worst electoral performance since the nation's independence in 1965.

Unlike Malaysia, though, immigration woes in Singapore are not so much an indication of growing xenophobia as it is of disgruntlement about overcapacity. Yet, the overzealousness of some at expressing their discord on a variety of the city state's social media sites has sometimes blurred the lines between the two. Left unchallenged, such caustic views can cause far-right sentiments to fester in a state that has long embraced multiculturalism.

In Thailand, where political elites are averse to multiculturalism, far-right tendencies may have already taken root. This can be surmised from the government's oppressive approach to the Muslim insurgency in the southern provinces.

The words of Prem Tinsulanonda, president of the Thai king's Privy Council, back in 2006 are revealing. Reacting to the recommendation for these provinces to be allowed to use Pattani Malay as their working language, he said: 'We cannot accept that [proposal] as we are Thai. The country is Thai and the language is Thai ... We have to be proud to be Thai and have the Thai language as the sole national language.'

If far-right ideology in Europe is blatantly predicated on the anxiety of all things Islamic, it is subliminally expressed in Southeast Asia through a wider register of fears. Its nebulousness has tricked us into thinking that it was not there. Now we know better.

Nazry Bahrawi is a research associate at the Middle East Institute in Singapore