Goh, Daniel PS. “Racial Culture Wars in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. 2023.
Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore are ethnically and religious diverse countries in Southeast Asia that had established postcolonial multiracial compacts to counter the legacies of colonial racism and pursued inclusive nation-building under authoritarian conditions in the early decades after independence. This contained the rise of political Islam among the majority Javanese and Malays in Indonesia and Malaysia, respectively, and secured racial harmony in Singapore despite the political and economic dominance of the Chinese majority.
Political liberalization after the Asian financial crisis and the democratization of the public sphere with the Internet have led to the decline of the multiracial compacts and the emergence of culture wars between conservatives and progressives over the nation’s values and future. Renewed Islamization pits conservative against moderate Muslims in everyday life and new media spaces while putting heavy pressure on Chinese and Christian minorities as well as the secular state in Indonesia and Malaysia. In Singapore, the spread of conservative Christianity among the Chinese and conservative Islam among the Malays pits conservatives against progressives in the growing civil society sector championing secularism and liberalization in racial, gender, and sexual discourse, with all sides using new media for political mobilization. These trends intersect with the politics of race and racism unleashed by the decline of the multiracial compacts, engendering racial culture wars mixing race and religion.
The recent pervasive spread of social media has intensified the conflicts of the racial culture wars, leading to intergroup violence, prosecution of individuals for insulting religious sensitivities, and heated accusations of racism and of religious and racial sensitivities being offended. Social media is also changing the dynamics of the racial culture wars, collapsing the boundary between the offline world of face-to-face interaction and the online world of viral realities, causing casual everyday remarks and actions to become national controversies. Efforts to promote antiracism and multiculturalism need to move into the social media space in creative and relevant ways to counter the racial culture wars.