A Malaysia for all Malaysians?

By  M. Nadarajah (The Malaysian Insider)

In recent times, the cultural and political notions of “Bangsa Malaysia” and “One Malaysia” have gained currency of use and are fast becoming household terms. They seem to have caught the imagination of many well-meaning sons and daughters of Mother Malaysia.

Our fourth Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohammad, conceived the former and the present Prime Minister, Najib Abdul Razak, came up with the latter. Both these leaders are connected to Umno and BN, formations that belong to the era of ethnic politics.

Both these concepts were conceived to deal largely with the demands by Malaysian citizens to create a Malaysia for all Malaysians, irrespective of race/ethnicity, religion and gender.

Malaysian citizens attempted to represent the post-March 2008 Malaysia as “New Malaysia” to articulate a new kind of politics – post-ethnic politics – with a cultural orientation that strongly promoted unity through celebration of cultural diversity.

In the 70s and 80s, we had intense discussion on National Cultural Policy. It was an intellectual and emotional movement that, among other concerns, focused on the needs of non-Malay Malaysian communities, seeking a fair and sensitive representation of their cultural elements in the development of a National Culture, which of course included vernacular education.

The spirit of “Rukunegara” also came to strongly articulate a similar tendency, comprehensively: “achieving a more perfect unity amongst the whole of her society; preserving a democratic way of life; creating a just society where the prosperity of the country can be enjoyed together in a fair and equitable manner; guaranteeing a liberal approach towards her rich and varied cultural traditions; and building a progressive society that will make use of science and modern technology.”

Another concept, “Malaysian Malaysia”, used in the early and mid-60s was widely associated with the then Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Of course the notion has gone into oblivion, only raised in opposition slogans here and there, now and then.

Because it was critical of article 153 and directly challenged the notion of Malay privileges, it was seen as an intensely disruptive concept and was criticised by many, including the then MCA president, Tan Siew Sin.

Earlier, and at the time of the conception of the political entity called Malaya, there was Dato' Onn Ja'afar and those who supported him, who represented the principle that in Malaya then and in the future (i.e. Malaysia), no citizen should have more privilege than another. He promoted inclusive politics.

“Malaysia for all Malaysians” is an imagination and a national need very strong in the soul of multicultural Malaysia, corrupted only by politicians and intellectuals with myopic and gutter political and cultural views.

Now, by design or default, we have allowed the concepts of Bangsa Malaysia and One Malaysia to set the agenda for us. We use these ideas to imagine a Malaysia for all. It is part of our everyday exchanges, discussion and debates.

They have come to consume the intellectual labour of many amongst us. They appear on television. We may soon have photo and essay competitions. And, probably national and international conferences.

It may be part of Corporate PR campaigns and CSR initiatives. Or, part of other national campaigns, popular imagination and popular culture. And possibly like “Malaysia Boleh”, now a part of Malaysian black humour.

But have we moved forward with these ideas? Are we, in any way, privileging the urge for unity at the expense of diversity? Are these notions benignly (with the potential for being aggressively) hegemonic? Are we by default setting the ground to privilege any one culture in the context of multiples religious and ethnic cultures?

Do these concepts address the issues raised in the 70s and 80s on National Malaysian Culture? Or are they aligned to the notion of post-March 2008 “New Malaysia”?

Are these ideas the refuge for Malaysians who have lost connection to their mother tongue, ethnic or religious cultural affiliations and seeking a cultural ground to stand on?

Are these ideas the refuge for hybrid communities who seem to feel a state of being neither here nor there, culturally speaking?

And, who will inhabit One Malaysia? Citizens who want to be identified as “Bangsa Malaysia”, or those who think/feel for “Malaysian Malaysia” (governed by “Rukunegara”)?

It is certainly a cultural action strategy of subalterns to appropriate notions from the mainstream or the dominant culture and to make them stand on their head, to redefine their meanings and to use them radically.

But without careful examination of origins and unstated orientations of cultural notions, we must be conscious of the danger of inadvertently lending support to notions that are not democratically developed and therefore not properly fleshed out. Critical cultural flash points may have not been addressed overtly (or even covertly) by any long term and deep institutional solutions.

It may be status quo wrapped in acceptable, palatable form, with critical details carefully avoided.

A cursory examination of the sociology of the notions – in particular “One Malaysia”  – suggests neither a careful analysis of their pre-history nor a planned institutionalisation of them within a democratic, multicultural and sustainable framework.

If present actions of the government are an indication, they are certainly not consistent with the citizen's notion of “One Malaysia”.

While there are a number of attempts to flesh out meanings of these notions and values behind them, at least for now there are hardly any genuine attempts to institutionalise them.

There are really no significant, culturally-sensitive and sustainable institutional changes which can reassure all Malaysian citizens.

So, instead of moving ahead with the work of institutionally building the “Malaysia for all Malaysians” that we have imagined and we want, we are spending hours of intellectual and creative labour trying to still formulate our national foundation, defining who we are and detailing our national “social contract”.

In the end, the notions of Bangsa Malaysia and One Malaysia may not really contribute to strengthening the soul of Malaysia, a Malaysia for all Malaysians.

While courage, creativity, and caution are necessary on the path ahead, without genuine and deep institutionalisation, we will not be taking our ideas forward. We will, instead, be stuck in a whirlpool of ideas and more ideas.

* Dr. M. Nadarajah is a sociologist by training. His work focuses on cultural and sustainability issues. These are his personal views.