Plural societies’ inequality and the promise of education

Understanding the potentially “destructive impact” of educational practices on social stability and social justice is critically important to grasp in understanding why educational policy and direction in plural societies, must engage the problems of sectional and social division.

Plural societies’ inequality and the promise of education

Acore problem with the success of education in plural and ethnically diverse societies revolves around the extent to which the broader society can resolve or at least ameliorate the problems of communalism and sectional conflict. During times of prosperity where optimism is king, issues such as ethnic conflict and social division may seem far from people’s minds.

After all, rising standards of living and apparent stability often act to occlude the darker problems and unresolved issues which history bequests a society. History, however, never really leaves us. Understanding the historical inheritance of plural societies and its ongoing challenges acts to temper liberal optimism, not with pessimism but realism. Nowhere is realism more needed than in education if the goals of social betterment and advancement are to be realized.

To understand the future challenges that may come, development of diverse and ethnically and religiously complex societies requires an engagement with a diverse range of issues. Education is primary among them. Ultimately, education can have a long-term positive effect in redressing social injustice and providing a divided society with a common set of values and binding norms. However, if educational institutions are overdetermined by the surrounding culture of social division and, if the binding socialization role that education can play is replaced by individualistic aims, then the positive role education can play can be negated. Education in this case can in effect become part of the problem in divided societies not part of the solution.

Plural societies

Plural societies often suffer problems of sectional conflict most often associated with ethnic and religious divisions. This characteristic of many plural societies was often formed or at a minimum exacerbated because of colonialism, and many plural societies continue to carry the burden of their colonial past. Examples of plural societies include Surinam, Ghana, Nigeria, Burma (today known as Myanmar), Malaysia and Fiji, among many others. 

JS Furnivall, in writing about Burma and Java, described the impact of colonialism in establishing a “medley of peoples” that “mix but do not combine.” (Furnivall, 1948.) He writes: “In Burma, as in Java, probably the first thing that strikes the visitor is the medley of peoples-European, Chinese, Indian and native. It is in the strictest sense a medley, for they 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. There is a plural society, with different sections of the community living side by side, but separately, within the same political unit. Even in the economic sphere there is a division of labor along racial lines.”

Advancing cohesiveness and a sense of inclusivity for all its citizens is critical both to social and political stability, as well as realizing educational outcomes. Given the seemingly interminable way in which racial and religious divisions impact educational debates, and despite the best efforts of reformers, normative integration and social cohesion remain critical issues in many plural societies. This is so given the growth of well-heeled middle classes in many plural societies, the spread of consumerism and the influence of “Western” ideas, tastes and lifestyles. Some people may think that if only politics, social issues, economics and culture could be kept out of education, then educators could focus on the practical problems of instruction, free from outside influence. This, however, is a pipe dream. The problems of education have always been deeply economic, cultural and political, and not simply instructional.

Post-colonial societies divided by sectional interests, ripped apart by racial and religious division, will necessarily view all educational reform and proposals through the prism of conflict and social competition. In such societies, the problem of education, and the success of educational reform will ultimately rest on addressing the wider inequalities and divisions that result from the colonial inheritance of plural society. Educational success in such societies is therefore not simply limited to how we advance practical instruction within schools, universities and other educational institutions. Rather success in educational reform rests ultimately upon addressing the issues that drive social disintegration and enflame social distrust. These issues incessantly pose basic dilemmas for policymakers, educators and citizens alike, and their resolution would greatly add to the success of educational reform.

Education: Addressing problems or the problem?

The idea that educational policymakers in plural societies can simply espouse an educational practice based on the idea of students as individualistic utility maximizers who in the educational domain solely to seek economic advantage under the aegis of “meritocracy” needs to be interrogated.

This is the case, lest severe unintended consequences relating to social injustice, social division and ultimately political instability result. In many plural societies the problems of social division, distrust conflict and competition, are never far from educational debate. Rather than viewing such forces as somehow extraneous to education, as if we could somehow ignore them, we need to view them as a critical part of our educational problem. The central point made here is that in plural societies where ethnic and religious divisions threaten social and political stability, education cannot be viewed simply through the prism of liberal competitive individualism.

Previously we mentioned JS Furnivall, who is well known to historians and political scientists for his critique of “plural society.” Furnivall’s writing is also the object of important criticisms and differences of opinion, not least the argument that his analysis is orientalist in nature and wedded too much to a Fabain vision of paternalistic meliorism. Despite these misgivings, Furnivall’s thoughts still seem relevant to grasping the continued salience and tenacity of social division in plural societies, even when proper consideration has been made of the changes that “modernization” and change have wrought in many plural societies. One area where Furnivall’s thoughts are of interest is in the educational domain. Furnivall is arguably not as well known for his observations regarding education, yet his observations with respect to education are worth pointing. They provide an interesting and challenging insight into the nature of education, and how it relates to plural societies and educational outcomes.

According to Furnivall: “Education, then, is the sum of all those processes which fit the youth for social life.” (Furnivall, 1942.) Note that education here is not defined simply as instruction, nor is it limited to what goes on in educational institutions such as schools and universities. Education in Furnivall’s opinion is wider and more complex than the narrow confines of formal instruction in universities and schools, although it obviously includes that. However, as Furnivall points out, if a society is utterly fragmented, lacking in social integration and cohesion then this begs the question to what extent such societies can achieve their educational aims. What does it mean to say one is educated in circumstances where social division, distrust and animus crowd out efforts at understanding and social integration?

In extreme cases of communally divided societies where any reform or positive step is torn apart by sectional interests and division, it can be tempting to ask if a society understood in any normative sense exists at all. Furnivall argues much the same when he points out, regarding the legacy of colonialism, that: “Everywhere in the Tropical Far East there has come into existence a Plural Society, held together not by tradition or religion but by little more than the steel framework of the law a society in which distinct social orders live side by side but separately within the same political unit. In circumstances such as these, the social life within each community tends to be disintegrated, and there is, moreover, no all-embracing social life. In the strict sense of the word, there is no society. If, then, education is the sum of all the processes which fit the child as a member of society, how can he be educated where society does not exist?” (Furnivall, 1942.)

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The problem of education in plural societies is thus, according to Furnivall, a problem closely connected to the way in which society is integrated and made cohesive. Furnivall observed that colonial education systems established in plural societies placed an emphasis on schooling as a path to economic and social advantage but did little to address social fractionalization and integration (Furnivall, 1942.) Furnivall writes: “A society in which distinct social orders live side by side but separately within the same political unit. In circumstances such as these the social life within each community tends to be disintegrated, and there is, moreover, no all-embracing social life.”(Furnivall, 1942.) Furthermore, he points out that: “We have noticed that learning has always had a two-fold aspect cultural and practical and that, in the modern world, the practical aspect has come into the foreground. That is true everywhere, but it is especially characteristic of a plural society, for an organization of this kind is based on economic relations and is necessarily utilitarian. Nowhere is this more clearly apparent than in the school.” (Furnivall, 1942.)

To understand and grasp the difficult relationship between education and sectional conflict and division in plural societies requires us to grasp that education can both challenge injustice and reinforce it.

In other words, schooling in colonial plural societies focused on the utilitarian dimensions of economic and social advancement, partly because of the kinds of pressures that colonial modernization and economic competition, wrought but compounded by the fact that social integration had broken down. Given the social, economic and political nature of plural society, educational reform has always faced the dilemma of how to maintain social integration and normative integration in a socially and culturally divided society. Pointing this out places renewed emphasis on a very old insight by Furnivall: “Only by the reintegration of society can we give a meaning to education.” (Furnivall, 1942.) Scholars have long pointed out the effects that social division, conflict and prejudice on education, as well as the effect that education, can have in addressing such problems. This is important when discussing the problems that characterize post-colonial plural societies where social justice as well as social and political stability are crucial. (Stewart, 2010.) Education has, according to Bush and Saltarelli, “two faces.” To understand and grasp the difficult relationship between education and sectional conflict and division in plural societies requires us to grasp that education can both challenge injustice and reinforce it.

Bush and Saltarelli argue: “Education is often used as a panacea for a broad spectrum of social ills, from racism to misogyny. While the impact of such initiatives has been mixed, their starting premise is the same: that formal education can shape the understandings, attitudes and, ultimately, the behavior of individuals. If it is true that education can have a socially constructive impact on intergroup relations, then it is equally evident that it can have a socially destructive impact.”(Bush & Saltarelli, 2000.)

Understanding the potentially “destructive impact” of educational practices on social stability and social justice is critically important to grasp in understanding why educational policy, and direction in plural societies, must engage the problems of sectional and social division. For education to fulfil the positive role it can play and have a “socially constructive impact,” it is necessary to understand the way that social injustice, division and separatism can manifest if not directly challenged. Simply put, market liberalization in the educational domain and uncritically following the lure of meritocracy may exacerbate forms of ethnic segmentation and social injustice.

In fact, ethnic segmentation and tension may increase with liberalization. Policy prescriptions based on commitments to expanding the scope of innovation and competition in educational institutions without balancing these aims with socially binding norms and social inclusion, may inflame rather than ameliorate social tensions. Amy Chua’s definitive work on the deleterious and dangerous results that neoliberal agenda can have on ethnically divided societies, is instructive. (Chua, 2003.) Chua captures the issue with characteristic frankness: “There exists today a phenomenon pervasive outside the West yet rarely acknowledged, indeed often viewed as taboo that turns free-market democracy into an engine of ethnic conflagration. I'm speaking of the phenomenon of market-dominant minorities: ethnic minorities who, for widely varying reasons, tend under market conditions to dominate economically, often to a startling extent, the “indigenous” majorities around them.” (Chua, 2002.)

Malaysian example

Let us take the case of Malaysia. A solid argument can be made that the roots of Malaysia’s social and political problems lie in its “colonial legacy.” (Booth, 2003.) The colonial history of Malaysia, where ethnicity was identified with economic function, is a critical part of its historical institutional inheritance that binds and constrains policymakers today. History is not irrelevant to Malaysia’s current political, social and educational problems.

Malaysia’s colonial education served in the main to preserve and reinforce the plural and socially divided nature of colonial Malaysian society. Selvaratnam discusses this historical heritage focusing on education, arguing: “The pyramidal colonial educational system in the period 1786-1957 had created a grave imbalance in the distribution of opportunities for education. With the exception of the Malay feudal class, the majority of Malays were provided with only an elementary vernacular education, from about four to six years, which was terminal. This was despite the fact that the British pursued a pro-Malay policy aimed at protecting the Malays from the “predatory” Chinese. Not surprisingly, the terminal vernacular education excluded the Malays to a large extent from the lower echelons of the colonial administrative and technical services, and the predominantly European-owned- and managed plantation and tin mining industries. It also kept the vast majority of them from gaining access to the English-medium and British-oriented elitist education systems, as well as the highly selective secondary and tertiary education system. Also, the exclusive Western-biased English-medium education that was provided by the colonial government and the Christian missions was restrictive, as it was predominantly an urban phenomenon,” Selvaratnam argued, adding, “In other words, colonial education policy ushered in the seeds of economic and cultural separatism.” (Selvaratnam, 1988)

The colonial educational system reflected and reinforced the plural and segmented nature of Malaysian society. Vernacular and religious schools reinforced ethnic division and the pluralistic nature both of society broadly, and the economy more specifically. The “identification of race with economic function” (EPU, 1971) is one result of such sectionalism and division in education. Post-colonial societies suffered from an inheritance of a plural society that was “one and the same thing” (Booth, 2012) as a plural economy. The results from this have been social fragmentation and sectional division. (Furnivall, 1948; Loh, 1975; MOE, 1975.) Employment patterns and levels of poverty in Malaysian society reveal the problem.

Horizontal inequality

Social and economic disadvantage can manifest in postcolonial plural societies in the social and political problem of horizontal inequality. Horizontal inequality is defined as inequality between social groups within a nation-state. While most studies on inequality focus on vertical inequality between individuals within a society, the significance of addressing horizontal inequalities in pluralist nations such as Malaysia needs to be understood as a way of explaining Malaysia’s economic and educational development.

Focusing on horizontal inequality offers a way for us to understand the critical relationship between addressing social justice and social stability. Ethnically and religiously plural societies that suffer the problems of horizontal inequality run the risk of significant social division and conflict, and this can undermine and negate the most optimistic liberal aspirations for education. (Stewart, 2002, 2010; Stewart, Brown, & Langer, 2007.) Frances Stewart, Graham Brown and Luca Mancini, point out that addressing horizontal inequality has direct and indirect benefits for a society: “The direct impact on members’ well-being is one of the most important aspects. People's well-being may be affected not only by their individual circumstances, but also by how well their group is doing. This is partly because membership of the group is part of a person’s identity, and partly because relative impoverishment of the group increases perceptions of members that they are likely to be trapped permanently in a poor position, or, if they have managed to do better than many in the group, that they are likely to fall back into poverty.” (Stewart, Brown, & Mancini, 2005.)

So, what other benefits than social justice and increased social and political stability can accrue from addressing horizontal inequality as it manifests in education? The indirect benefits of addressing horizontal inequality also include the promotion of efficiency. This appears counter intuitive since efficiency gains are usually associated with neoliberal notions of individual effort and the expansion of market principles through educational institutions. In, fact the unleashing of talent by people that has hitherto been marginalized in educational institutions is the precursor to improving individual achievement, and advancing social justice and political stability. (Stewart et al, 2005) Neoliberal critics of Malaysian higher education often critique efforts to reduce horizontal inequality as leading to inefficiency.

Such a view fails to grasp the efficiencies that are generated through addressing horizontal inequality. Frances Stewart argues: “A common criticism of affirmative action policies is that they reduce standards (in the case of education) and efficiency (in the case of economic affirmative action). In theory, there are reasons for both negative and positive impacts. On the negative side, interference in normal competitive processes is said to prevent the allocation of resources in the most efficient fashion. On the positive side, countering discrimination and giving the whole population equal opportunities is likely to improve efficiency, by permitting greater realization of potential. Even policies involving positive discrimination towards deprived groups may improve efficiency, by offsetting the deep historic bias against such groups … There is no significant empirical evidence to suggest that such policies reduce efficiency, although careful evaluations are relatively rare. (Stewart, 2010.)

Social conflict and exclusion are efficient in nobody’s book.

In fact, as Stewart reminds us: “In Malaysia, the high economic growth that accompanied affirmative action policies also suggests that they may have had a positive impact.” (Stewart, 2010.) In regards to education in Malaysia, Lee Hwok-Aun argues: “Affirmative action in education in the form of preferential admissions, scholarships and exclusive bumiputera programs and institutions has played a vital role in expanding access at the postsecondary and tertiary levels to Malays and other bumiputera groups.”(Lee, 2017.) Social conflict and exclusion are efficient in nobody’s book. Malaysia is a good example of a nation where public policy has directly addressed the issue of horizontal inequality and where affirmative action programs have directly led to greater participation rates of hitherto excluded groups and thus greater equality between ethnic groups on the whole. (Fauziah, 1999; Rao, 2009; Roslan, 2001; Sabbagh, 2004; Yusof, 2006.) This is so, even recognizing that policies aimed at redressing horizontal inequality can have negative results as well.

Continued inequality within different ethnic groups and social and economic injustice suffered by forgotten, poorer marginalized communities can be some of the unintended results of policies that try to redress fundamental structural inequalities. It is important to be mindful of some of the downsides that occur when horizontal inequality is addressed. Finding the balance between the pressures of neoliberalism, increasing privatization and “meritocracy,” and the specific needs of social stability and inclusion is no easy matter. Prescriptions for neoliberal reform to public institutions such as education, which fail to consider or understand the deeper and ongoing issues of social cohesion and economic justice, are fraught in plural societies and will arguably continue the negative legacy of colonial inequality and division. Finding a “balance” between “merit-based opportunities with needs-based social programs” is of course a key challenge. (Lee, 2017.)

In many respects, contemporary neoliberal nostrums applied in education to plural societies are a postcolonial continuation of the reduction of educational aims to meet the needs of production and economic competition, absent social solidarity that marred colonial societies. Neoliberal globalization discourse, with its emphasis on competition and markets, is a poor and ultimately dangerous substitute for an informed and sophisticated discourse about the directions and emphasis that public policy must pursue in ethnically divided societies and nations such as Malaysia and other plural societies. The negative effect of an overemphasis on market principles in education acts as a sobering wake-up call for those who would subordinate education completely to market logic, individual competition and so-called meritocracy.

In plural societies with significant history of horizontal inequality, the need to think long and hard about grounding an ethical agenda in education needs considerable attention. What must be noted in this respect is that how social justice is conceived is itself contextually relative, depending for example the extent to which horizontal inequalities and other legacies of colonialism continue to haunt developing societies. These are concerns that are central to the maintenance of social cohesion and stability. The problem of horizontal and ethnic inequality found in many newly independent countries and developed countries, suggests the need to institutionally engage the problem of social justice and education in more dynamic and creative ways.


Education is always a long-term game. Putting effort into its socially integrative function may seem to some as inefficient during times of low stress and prosperity, when social optimism hides older problems from our view. When societies face crises, the benefits of an education system that has sought to engage the problem of social justice and horizontal inequalities will become more apparent.

The legacy of history can never be erased, and old issues thought long gone tend to reappear when unpredictable stress occurs. Investing in the socially integrative function of education during times of prosperity in plural societies can reap benefits in times of crisis and stress. Addressing horizontal inequality and the problems of normative integration in plural societies are critical long-term goals. Educational institutions that represent societies’ long-term interests in positive development and betterment, have an important and critical role in achieving these goals.

To do so requires a realism and discipline in how we view education and society. This can appear at odds with the abstractions and optimism of liberal thinking and policy prescriptions that often dominate so-called global best practices and models. Such are the challenges of education in plural societies.

James K Campbell is an independent writer and researcher based in Melbourne.

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