Let’s reboot Malaysia and invite Brunei, Singapore again

I hear warning sirens blaring in my head when people, especially politicians, bring up patriotism. To these people, patriotism means “follow orders and ask no questions”. They direct your energy (mostly anger) to whichever direction they wish. And, often, the enemies are in our midst – some cohorts of our fellow citizens whom they don’t like, or fear.

Adzhar Ibrahim, Free Malaysia Today

So today is Malaysia Day. Happy Malaysia Day to all fellow Malaysians. Most of us are born after 1963, and the meaning of Malaysia Day escapes us. But a holiday is always nice, and Malaysia is world-class at manufacturing them.

While growing up, Malaysia Day was just another holiday for me, much overshadowed by Merdeka Day on August 31.

I didn’t quite understand the full significance of the Malaysia Agreement 1963 that gave birth to the new federation. I grew up with a memory of Singapore being part of things, and of Sabah and Sarawak being merely two, rather backward ones, among the many states.

Lately, however, you hear a lot more about what had happened, and that Sabah and Sarawak (and Singapore) were separate entities that agreed to form a new nation with what was then Malaya. They’re meant to be more than mere states like the many in the Peninsula.

I remember powerful voices saying that any talk about Sabah or Sarawak seceding was treasonous Even without understanding much the legalities of things, that does seem a bit over the top. After all, Singapore left the federation and nobody was hung for treason then.

Starting over

I don’t think anybody in Sabah and Sarawak is seriously contemplating secession. It’s not a nice time to be on your own in the very harsh world out there, with Indonesia to the east and south, the Philippines to the north and China pretty much everywhere else.

Here’s an idea though – a Malaysia Baru with the same components as we started out with in 1963. Invite Brunei and Singapore again. We do belong together more than we care to admit. At the very least we’d get another public holiday.

But I can sympathise with much of what our brothers and sisters across the South China Sea feel. Many think the formation of Malaysia was the thin edge of the wedge, and now are asking for what they felt they have increasingly lost – rights and share of wealth and respect etc.

Are these voices unpatriotic?

It depends on how you define patriotism. It means different things to different people. As it’s been said, one man’s patriot is another man’s terrorist. Regardless, many see patriotism as uncritical love and obedience for the country, often meaning you have to be prepared to die (and to kill) in its name.

Any proposition that requires dying (and killing) must be examined with maximum rigour. There could be times where such dying or killing is justified, but there’s a line between sacrifices to preserve what you love versus being cannon fodder or murderers.

Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, said Samuel Johnson way back in 18th Century England, and he hit the nail right on the head.

I hear warning sirens blaring in my head when people, especially politicians, bring up patriotism. To these people, patriotism means “follow orders and ask no questions”. They direct your energy (mostly anger) to whichever direction they wish. And, often, the enemies are in our midst – some cohorts of our fellow citizens whom they don’t like, or fear.

What real patriotism looks like

What if we define patriotism in more simple terms, by things that everybody can follow easily and would be happy to be judged on?

What if patriotism is…

  • Following the big laws in letter and in spirit? You’d get a few free passes for breaking traffic laws that don’t hurt anybody, and maybe a few local ordinances about the size of the signboards on your shops. But you must adhere to the big ones and truly believe in the rule of law.
  • Treating every citizen the same regardless of differences (race, religion, wealth, gender, political beliefs)? Said treatment must extend beyond mere celebratory day greetings, and get to the root of things, especially in how justice is dispensed and public wealth is distributed.
  • Paying our taxes when we have to? Those who earn more pay more. Grumbling aside, generally this principle is widely accepted. And those who consume more of our taxes than they contribute must never take it for granted.
  • Helping everybody around you as much as you can? Life’s tough but we can all make it a little easier for each other by being caring and considerate. There may come a time when we may need help ourselves.
  • Celebrating the differences amongst us? We’re all products of different cultures and histories and these are mostly good and worth celebrating. Almost all of what is important – religions, cultures, society and politics, etc – came from outside Malaysia and further afield; many are themselves amalgams of a bit of this and a dash of that from here and there.

However, changes happening to the world these days have no regard for national borders. The internet has levelled many boundaries, and international trade and movement of money and people have created their own global trajectories.

Climate change certainly doesn’t care about national borders. When the chickens come home to roost on this, the whole world will feel the impact; unless we all pull together, we will all go down as a species, and not just as individual nationalities.

And the virus… Let’s not even start talking about the virus.

The whole notion of patriotism in such a hyper-connected world is quaint, and at times downright dangerous. We need to look around us, savour and value whoever and whatever is there, and feel they are worth fighting to protect from enemies domestic or foreign.

Taking responsibility

Ultimately, patriotism is about accepting our responsibility for the future and valuing the sacrifices of the people in the past, and not forgetting we’re part of a bigger patria than merely what it says on our passport.

This feeling, however obvious and uncontroversial as it may sound, is not so to many others. We can’t give these people too much power. We certainly can’t actively empower them, but neither can we empower them through inaction, by merely closing our eyes and doing nothing.

I’m not a politician. And in all likelihood, neither are you. But we have a responsibility to the common good.

Those of us who are honest enough will say some imperfections here and there are OK and we can live with them. Perfection can wait until the time we die. But we must hold our leaders very tightly to these responsibilities because they promised us much and took oaths on them. They must deliver what they promised, and if they don’t, then they must be held accountable.

Given that Malaysia Day isn’t usually given to parades and raucous celebrations, perhaps this piece, which is rather grave and reflective, is not too far out of place. Let’s celebrate Malaysia Day as also a Malaysia Baru Day, even if it doesn’t come with an extra holiday.