Did Malaysia mature when we were not looking?

The Malays continue to decide the national discourse, as they have done since the beginning. But most hearteningly, diversity is taken for granted, and a lot of activism is done in collaboration with non-Malays.

by Ooi Kee Beng, Today Online 

The flurry of Malay organisations making the news in Malaysia bodes well for the country, whether or not these group together extreme rightists, opposition voices, concerned students or professors, or green or human right activists.

The matter has now become too obvious to be denied, which is that the Malay community in Malaysia is like any other community anywhere in the world. Its collectiveness, like anyone else’s, is pragmatic and contingent. This is how it should be. They are not an entity whose extremely diverse and individual needs, thoughts and aspirations can be articulated through one single political party.

The myth is broken. What will take its place is a cacophony of noises or a symphony of tunes, depending on one’s politics and disposition.

That powerful party, UMNO, is the oldest in the country, founded as it was just one year after the Second World War. It has dominated Malaysian politics to this day, but now rightly fears that it will lose power in the very near future.

When the party started, its slogan was “Hidup Melayu” – Long Live the Malays. Only after changing that to “Merdeka” in March 1951 did it begin to make serious headway into the popular consciousness.

From the very beginning, Malay political consciousness went in many directions. There were pan-Indonesianists, communists and other leftists, monarchists, Fabian socialists and republicans. The British, with their reputation lost through their defeat by the Japanese, favoured conservatives who were willing to work closely with the nine sultanates. This entity was UMNO.

The amazing diversity found in the Malay community – as in all communities – was obvious from the onset. Those more concerned about religious values broke away to form PAS in 1951, while UMNO itself split around the same time when its president, Mr Onn Jaafar, left with his group of followers to form the Independence of Malaya Party (IMP).

UMNO gained the upper hand through cooperation with the Malayan Chinese Association, formed at the instigation of the British to draw Chinese support away from the communists. This coalition managed to gain independence in 1957 for the country after its electoral successes saw the British abandoning the IMP, which they had favoured since its founding.

Even after 1969, when the so-called Malay agenda could be applied fully through the New Economic Policy, internal fighting continued within UMNO, leading to outright splits in 1988 and 1998.

Today, when more and more Malays are urban and well educated, and make up an increasing portion of the population, the expression of diversity within that community – the breaking of the collective myth – should be seen as the coming into being of Malaysia’s modern citizen, largely determined by the Malays.

Opposition from other communities since 1969 has been generally weak, and based on the activism of certain individuals. The propaganda that had served UMNO for so long, that the Malays are in danger of extinction, does not work anymore.

This became most obvious when the group Himpun recently demonstrated with a cry against purported Christian threats to Islam.

Despite the claim that a massive crowd of one million would turn up, the UMNO government granted the permit. Only 5,000 people showed up, indicating quite clearly that Malays in general cannot relate to the old idle logic any longer.

The Malays continue to decide the national discourse, as they have done since the beginning. But most hearteningly, diversity is taken for granted, and a lot of activism is done in collaboration with non-Malays.

The Malaysian citizen has come into his and her own right.

There is no longer any doubt that the Malays will “hidup”; and Merdeka was won a long time ago. What seems to be the problem now is, how quickly will the death of the old myth mean the fall from power of UMNO?

Instead of 1Malaysia, UMNO’s latest slogan, to be correctly reflective of the government’s concerns, should be “Hidup Pemimpin UMNO” – Long Live UMNO Leaders.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies. Among his recent books is The Right to Differ: A Biographical Sketch of Lim Kit Siang.