Pillarisation (or verzuiling in Dutch) is the state of a society that is divided into groups that self-segregate. Until the 1960s and 1970s, the Netherlands was a country whose population was divided along sectarian lines. There was a Catholic pillar, a Protestant pillar, a Socialist pillar and a Liberal pillar. These groups had their own schools, broadcasters, newspapers, political parties, labor unions, employer federations, universities, hospitals, shops and sports clubs. Marriage and friendships between families from different pillars were either discouraged or simply not allowed. The Catholic school kids would always fight with the Protestant school kids. A good Catholic would only buy from Catholic shops. The priest or minister would make house visits to ensure everything was being done “correctly”. The Netherlands was a segregated society with extensive social control within the respective pillars.
To a Malaysian this system may seem strangely familiar, as Peninsular Malaysia has its own racial-linguistic pillars: Malay, Tamil, Chinese and English. Each has their own media outlets, political parties, educational institutions, neighborhoods, popular shopping malls, cuisine, places of worship, social clubs, chambers of commerce, etc. And while Malaysians of different races do mix regularly, especially in the workplace, the number of Malaysians who marry or maintain deep friendships across racial lines, is relatively limited. Within many groups there is still a strong sense of social control, and opinion polls show that a large segment of Malaysian society is still very conservative regarding social issues.
The big difference between Malaysia and the Netherlands is racial and linguistic: the Netherlands during pillarisation was, for all intents and purposes, a mono-lingual and mono-ethnic country. Malaysia of course is multi-racial and multi-lingual. Malaysians often refer to their society as ‘Rojak’, a salad of fruit, vegetables and sometimes egg and tofu, all mixed together and covered in a sauce. The point is that each of the items in the salad retains their individual characteristics, they do not melt or assimilate into one uniform Malaysian soup or porridge. There is only a Malaysian sauce that unites them.
In the Netherlands more progressively minded individuals from within each pillar tried to break down barriers between them. The Netherlands became a much less religious and more individualistic society during the later part of the 20th century, and this weakened the social control from within the pillars. This loosening eventually lead to various mergers between labor unions, political parties, broadcasters, etc. Schools accepting students from diverse backgrounds. Inter-religious marriages and friendships losing their stigma. Today the process of de-pilarisation in the Netherlands that took place in the 1960s and 1970s is primarily seen as a social process which brought about institutional and political change.
Since the 1990s the Netherlands is widely seen as one of the most liberal countries, having legalized prostitution, soft drugs, gay marriage and euthanasia, all abhorred by the conservatives. However this is not to say that all religion or conservative values have disappeared. In fact, the Netherlands is also home to a substantial ‘bible belt’ of mainly conservative Protestants, who have maintained their pillars. The stereotype is of large conservative families, who attend church regularly, strictly observe Sunday as a day of rest, and in some cases, oppose modern technologies such as television and vaccinations. This diversity in views is represented in the Dutch parliament: there is a conservative political party that would like to deny women the right to vote, a party for animals, a party that would like to deport all Muslims and recently, a party that fights (only) for the rights of Muslims.
So does the Dutch experience suggest that Malaysia will inevitably de-pillarise? That the ‘Rojak’ will become ‘Laksa’ or ‘Bubur’? If anything, modern Malaysia seems to have pillarised more since independence. Many Malaysians growing up during the 1950s and 1960s in Malaysia remember a more multi-ethnic society in areas such as education or the civil service. Yet this may also have been an illusion of the elite: Malaysian society at the level of the working class was perhaps always more deeply divided along racial and religious lines. Government policy since independence has largely aimed to maintain or reinforce those divisions, perhaps primarily as a tool to maintain social control, and not dissimilar to the ‘neat’ political divisions in the Netherlands after World War II.
What should be remembered is that Dutch de-pillarisation was accompanied by a phenomenal economic transformation of the country after 1945. In Malaysia, arguably a greater degree of de-pillarisation has occurred in more prosperous urban areas, such as the Klang Valley. In those areas more multi-ethnic parties tend to perform well in elections, presumably reflecting different social values of the local population. Ethnic-based parties tend to perform better in less prosperous rural areas of Malaysia.
While Malaysia will not experience de-pillarisation in the same way that The Netherlands has, the comparison with The Netherlands suggests two things that might be relevant in a Malaysian context. First, that socio-economic changes are the main drivers of the cultural and political changes that brought about de-pillarisation. Second, that the pillars — the institutions, social bonds, ways of life — will survive, although they will lose influence.