Achieving unity behind the diversity

 By Dr.Collin Abraham

Seldom have journalists or academic ‘experts’ in the area of ethnic and race relations taken a definitive position as in an NST editorial, asserting that Malaysia has adopted a unique formula for national unity and that it works.

Given the known entrenched complexities and intricacies in-built in this scenario, the Article is to be commended for projecting positive prescriptions in a situation where, it can be said, that even ‘angels (would normally) fear to tread’. Accordingly, the  contention that ‘we do not believe that we have to be alike to be united to share common ideals strikes at the heart of conventional thinking to the contrary, and therefore needs to be taken seriously.

 Indeed, this position is reinforced in the realization that primordial communal relationships have always emphasized a consciousness of commonness’ of kind, and identity of belonging, centered on the ‘we’, rather than the ‘they’. The notion, therefore that a community well rooted and functionally effective, would be in a better position to reach out to the wider society in a meaningful way for national unity, is a strong one. After all it is said that ‘blood is thicker than water’. In this context, it will also not be surprising if the Malaysian model should proclaim that ‘for forms of government let fools contest, whatever is, is best’.

 But this is not the place to enter into an in-depth theoretical and pragmatic critique on this contentious and challenging position. Rather, because of the importance of national unity, it might be more meaningful and useful to briefly evaluate the Malaysian experience, with a view to ascertaining how some basic problematic situations arising from the model might be addressed and hopefully overcome.

 The Malaysian model may be said to rest on an essentially elitist political system whereby the leaders of the main race-based political parties exercise a dominant role in policy formulation and in implementation. This is in fact a legacy of colonialism based on the divide-and rule policy that was successfully implemented by the British almost at the very beginning of imperial intervention in the affairs of the Malay states. The implications of the latter development for intra-ethnic social interaction was in fact to further consolidate the dominant position of elite groups and perpetuate the social inequalities and political marginalization of subordinate groups in what was essentially two-class political system.

 But colonialism, because it sustained a systematic multi-pronged attack on the social structure of the three main communities irreversibly damaged the indigenous economy and stunted the possible development in the export driven modern sector of the economy associated with the cash nexus. As a result the inequalities in intra-ethnic relations was reflected in the pattern of inter-racial relations as well. This is because the ‘we’ vs ‘they’ consciousness became heightened and reflected in potentially conflict situations where the ethnic differences in language, religion and ‘culture’ became intertwined and manifested itself with perceptions of physically ‘racial’ differences in the ensuing political and economic scenarios.

 My task in attempting to suggest how these difficulties and problems can hopefully be overcome has been made easier by referring to the promulgation of the New Economic Policy. Much has been written, as well as debated on this policy, so that my take that the NEP was in fact conceptualized and designed as a panacea to readdress the negative impact of the colonial system can be sustained. Tun Dr Mahathir’s “Malay Dilemma” on which the NEP may be said to be based, clearly made a strong case for a restructuring of the post-colonial social structure towards a more egalitarian society for all.  Indeed Tun was theoretically and pragmatically correct in projecting that this process must necessarily begin with the Bumiputra/Malay community. But for reasons that I need hardly go into here, despite Dr Mahathir as Prime Minister, championing the cause of the former community, as no other Prime Minister has or can ever do, the elite groups failed in redirecting some of the benefits that accrued to them to the subordinate groups within the community and indeed to the society at large.

 At this a defining moment in our history it is my contention that the time is opportune for the NEP to be restructured. The concern here is more towards the second prong of the NEP that clearly postulates addressing the elimination of poverty affecting all communities as well as towards the implementation of policies geared towards a more egalitarian society based on social justice.