Malaysia no longer “Tanah Melayu”,we’re all citizens of Bumi Malaysia now. Notes dedicated to Teo Beng Hock

The idea of “Tanah Melayu” must be reflected upon — of its relevancy and whether it is a kind of ideological thinking that will help develop a culture of peace or help nurture inter-racial hatred.
Azly Rahman

I dedicate these notes to Teo Beng Hock, a young Malaysian who ought to be an inspiration to many wishing to call Malaysia home.

Because we have agreed to become a country rooted in a social contract that ought to give equality, equity, and equal opportunity to all who have given up their natural rights in exchange for “citizenship” and the rights of the State to tax them (with or without representation), we must recognize that Malaysia is for Malaysians. 1Malaysia concept must abolish all forms of discrimination and institionalize good diversity and affirmative action policies.

This will be the most humane perspective we ought to work towards in holding. What is needed is a system of check and balance that will ensure that each generation of Malaysians will progress without the trappings of mistrust, hatred, and institutionalized racism.

But first, we must all fight for the installation of this reality. Political will that will move this agenda of ethical liberalism must be harnessed and be made the driving force for social, cultural, educational, and psychological change.

The idea of “Tanah Melayu” must be reflected upon — of its relevancy and whether it is a kind of ideological thinking that will help develop a culture of peace or help nurture inter-racial hatred.

Communal politics is an old school thinking that cannot survive the wave of cosmopolitanism; just like the any idea that could not survive the inevitability of historical change propelled by changes in material condition and consciousness.

In Malaysia, the days of communal politics are numbered, however well it is packaged and propagandized. Multiculturalism, and in fact radical multiculturalism, or better still radical marhaenism is the next wave. Institutions that promote racism must be deconstructed and abolished; institutions that are funded by the ruling regime to ensure the hegemony of this or that race. Dismantle them before they become yet another layer of complexity in our consciousness; a layer that hides the structural violence inherent in a system of racism and false consciousness called “nationalistic history”.

The only permanent thing is change, as the Chinese philosopher and mystic Lao Tzu said. Man has no nature, what he has is history, said the Spanish philosopher Ortega Gasset.

And there will be beauty in this change if we know how to destroy the beast within.

I am reproducing an essay I wrote sometime ago on “New Bumiputeraism”

Time for new ‘bumiputera-ism’

… kini kita cuma tinggal kuasa
yang akan menentukan bangsa
hasil mengalir, ke tangan yang lain
pribumi merintih sendiri…

My loose translation of this 1980s propaganda song by the Biro Tata Negara reads:

“… political power is what we are only left with
one that will determine the fate of our nation
wealth of this nation flows into the hands of others
sons and daughters of the soil suffer in solace…”

I do not think we have a clear understanding of what the lyrics means. I doubt if the songwriter even understand what a ‘people’s history of Malaya’ means.

History is a complex syntagmatic pattern of interplay between technology, ideology, culture, inscription and institutionalisation not easily reduced to simplistic lyrics as such sung to the tune of pre-war German-nationalistic-sounding compositions.

History is about the complex evolution of the ruling class who owns the technologies of control. As Marx would say, at every epoch it is the history of those who own the means of production that will be written and rewritten. The winners write history, the losers write poetry or study anthropology.

Back to the lyrics. After more than 50 years of independence, who is suffering in Malaysia? Who has become wealthy? Who has evolved into robber barons?

Language of power and ideology is at play in those lyrics. The definition of ‘bumiputera’ is at play. It has become a problematic word in this age of deconstructionism; an age wherein as the poet WB Yeats said, “the centre cannot hold”.

Rock musicians will recall the Scorpions’ famous song ‘Winds of Change’ to serenade the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the breakdown of the Soviet Empire. We have to face the ‘wrath’ of the word.

Process of rebirth

There is an old Malay practice in Johor of renaming a child ‘Buang’ if his given name does not ‘suit’ him. My grand-uncle who passed away in the early 1970s had ‘Buang’ as a name. His old name did not suit him. He was often sick when he was a child ‘carrying’ his old name. Buang means ‘discard’. I would call it with a more noble word ‘reconceptualisation’, so that we may now talk about the ‘reconceptualisation of bumiputera-ism’.

Several semesters ago, when I was lecturing an undergraduate class in African philosophy, using Chinhua Achebe’s novel ‘Things Fall Apart’, I began to understand how similar my grand-uncle’s predicament is with that of the main character , Okonkwo, of that great African novel. ‘The Lion King’ explained the concept even better.

The name ‘bumiputera’ has to undergo ‘reconceptualisation’. The Indonesians had their process of ‘Buang-isation’ perhaps as Bung Karno (Soekarno) had envisioned. It has to undergo ‘rebirth’ or karma, as the Hindus would say.

We indulge in this ritual called ‘election’, another problematic word, commissioned to be executed ‘fairly’. When we are done with the general election, when we have shaken up the illusionary foundation of race that define ‘bumiputera-ism’, when we have begun to realise that it id the unseen hands of local and international corporate-crony-crypto-conspicuous-consuming capitalist class that is corrupting our material, emotional, ideological and spiritual landscape, we will start our post-mortem session on this process of ‘Buang-isation’ or ‘reconceptualisation’ of this idea of ‘bumiputera-ism’.

But the present regime cannot perform this process of Malaysian ‘divining’ and ‘discarding’. It cannot conduct this ‘Buang-isation’ ceremony because it no longer possess a good spiritual core. Its “vegetative soul”, as the Islamic philosopher Professor Syed Naguib Alatas would call it, is too calloused with the carcinogens of corruption that its “rational soul” is forever lost and transported into the yuga (spiritual age) of this materially corrupt world – the kali yuga.

The ceremony must be performed by a group of philosopher-rulers whose idealism lies in the establishment of a ‘republic of virtue’; one that drives its economic foundation from the accumulation of ‘spiritual and metaphysical’ rather than the material capital. ‘Das Kapital’ of the spiritual accumulation of wealth will be the product of this divination. Georg Hegel would agree with this idea of spiritual revolution. It cannot be performed by investment bankers-cum-politicians.

Names connote and denote something. Words, Pinker or Lacan or any of the bio-semioticians/linguistic anthropologists would say, carry metaphors and manifestations of history, material, power, knowledge and ideology. Worse still these words become institutions and become institutionalised into architectures of power and control.

Writers such as Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul have analysed this phenomena of architectures of power as these structure relate to the nature of Man within the context of the language in which he/she is situated.

‘Bumiputera’ is one such word. A problematic word. A word that assumes race and religion as one. To say that a Malay is generally a Muslim and hence a ‘bumiputera’ and therefore have special rights and privileges is an imprecise way of explaining a concept. It is an old-school approach to defining that word.

We must find ways to enrich the concept better so that it will become inclusive. Who toils for the soil? Labour, more than language, seems to be more a more linguistically just way to look at the definition of bumiputera and how we will go about the ‘Buangi-sation’ process.

We need a premise for this process though. Let’s begin with this phrase: “We hold these truths to be self-evident and Divine-ly sanctioned that All Malaysians are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator the inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, happiness, justice and social equality… and we shall resoundingly declare that from now on we will be constructed as equal and be called ‘the new bumiputera’…

Sounds like a Rousseauin, Lockean, and Jeffersonian ideal locked in one, with a Malaysian ethos as its foundation. Sounds like what the Quran, Bible, Bhagavad Gita, Sutras, Puranas, Tao Te’ Chng , Granth Sahib and Tibetan Book of the Dead would advocate.

That can be our premise for this radical change. Now the second stage of the ‘Buang-isation’ process can begin.

Critique the ideology

We must do something different to ourselves if we are to move to the next level of evolution as Malaysians.

Let us reconstruct the old concept of ‘bumiputera’ so that we will have a better foundation in preparation for a redefinition in the Federal Constituition – so that the constitution can now protect all rather that the few. Isn’t democracy for the powerful few only good for plutocracy?

Yes – who is a ‘bumiputera’? After more than 50 years this term should have evolved and changed. The base and superstructure, the ideology and material foundation, and the body and spirit of this nation-state called Malaysia have changed.

The old definition has run its course. It is fine to see this as the right time to change. We must remember that words get refined and redefined in the course of history. Ask any linguist in any Malaysian university.

Words like democracy, freedom, justice and equality get reconceptualised after every social revolution. Words like Malays, Indians, Chinese, East and West Malaysians used as classification systems are good during the colonial period and in the early years of independence. They have lost their connotative and denotative power as pass the 50th year of independence.

Language is reality – words become flesh, inscriptions become institutions.

Redefine what ‘bumiputera’ means, so that we will not be forced to sing more propaganda songs.

After more than 50 years of Merdeka, aren’t we all bumiputera now?

While the opinion in the article is mine,
the comments are yours;
present them rationally and ethically.