One Malaysia, two halves

Who do the people who support the caning of Kartika want to be? Who do the people who dismiss the Penans as backward liars want to be? Who do the people who think that women deserve violence for not acceding to demands want to be? Who do the people perceiving those who do not fit into certain norms as threats, and act accordingly, want to be?

By Yasmin Masidi, The Nut Graph

THE build-up to Malaysia's 46th birthday began this year, for me, with an argument between two acquaintances. A West Malaysian acquaintance said the prevailing notion that Malaysia is 52 years old, versus its actual birth in 1963, is a matter of interpretation. An East Malaysian acquaintance angrily pointed out that this was an erasure of history and, by extension, the erasure of the lived reality of entire peoples in this country.

My parents were just about in their teens when the then-North Borneo attained self-governance. This was just over two weeks before Donald Stephens, later known as Tun Mohammad Fuad Stephens, put pen to paper to make Sabah part of a new nation. Sarawak had become independent about a month earlier, on 22 July 1963.

In the popular imagination, the birth of this country is sepia-tinted and distant, as in the famous Merdeka ad. But 1963 isn't very far into the past. There would have been many in the generation prior to mine who were old enough to have doubts and questions over Malaysia. Yet they chose to believe that this new federation would give life to their hopes and dreams. From Banggi Island to Kangar, we took that step into a brave new world not as colonial subjects, but as free and sovereign peoples.

Of course, the truth is that even as we thought we could shape ourselves and this nation into a grand beacon of the postcolonial world, there remained unfinished business and conveniently ignored questions. The multiplicities of identities and the pressures of politics within and without were always going to be difficult to handle for an emerging nation. 46 years later, grappling with parts of our history we are told to look away from, are we any closer to the best we could be?

Who are we?

I initially thought of revisiting the question that ended my Malaysia Day piece last year, and expand the question to include the entirety of Malaysia: Who are we? It seems to me, insofar as the West-East Malaysia relations are concerned, we are still a nation of two halves. This year's Merdeka celebrations continue to proclaim that Malaysia is 52, and Malaysia Day remains unrecognised federally.