Time to redefine ‘national culture’, says academic

Tajuddin Rasdi says the government must move past the Malay and Islam-centric definition to make it more inclusive.

(FMT) – An academic has urged the government to redefine “national culture” to reflect Malaysia’s diversity and “restore the dignity” of various communities.

Tajuddin Rasdi, an Islamic architecture professor at UCSI University, said a new definition will also help the country “outgrow the past”.

The National Culture Policy (NCP), formulated at the 1971 National Culture Congress, outlines three conditions to define a “Malaysian culture”, namely that it must be based on Malay culture, suitable elements from other cultures may be accepted, and Islam is an important component.

Tajuddin recalled that not many non-Malays were present at the congress, which came after the May 13, 1969 riots, but there was a strong Malay presence.

“I think that was where we started and I have no issue with it because this is history. History arises from a reaction towards a certain situation,” he told FMT.

“But I do believe that we need to outgrow the past. The new generation needs the dignity of their own identities, and therefore the current definition must be reviewed. We should have an equal statement for all cultures,” he added.

The NCP has never been gazetted into law but it is said to have contributed to tense racial relationships.

It has often been invoked to deny the recognition of non-Malay cultures, such as the ban on lion dances and other non-Malay cultural forms in schools in the 1980s.

A 2022 Unesco report has rated Malaysia as one of the countries with the lowest inter-cultural dialogue index (ICDI), giving it a score of 0.35 out of one.

Tajuddin said the intensification of Islamic thought during the Islamic reform movements in the 1970s and the growth of a retiring Malay middle-class that has become more religious would account for the low score.

“Islam has become bigger and bigger, and it engulfs the idea of culture. I’m not saying that it is right or wrong. I’m saying that this is how the Muslims and the Malays react to (the idea of culture),” he said.

“There’s hardly anything you can call Malay culture (now) unless it is associated with Islam. One reason why there is a lack of cultural dialogue between Malays and others is simply because of this,” he added.

Some Malay arts, such as wayang kulit and mak yong, have also been deemed “un-Islamic” by religious authorities, he said.

Tajuddin added that the current political landscape has also exacerbated the lack of communication between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities as religion has become a “selling point” in politics.

The solution, he said, lies in educating the Muslim clerics on topics of arts, culture and discourses in other civilisations, as they wield great influence on public opinion.

“Islam is supposed to be able to coexist with Chinese and Indian cultures but there are certain things that you might have to modify. It doesn’t mean engulfing others’ (cultures).

“If you can retrain clerics who write sermons by teaching them art, culture and world civilisation, we can then eradicate racial politics because Islam is not supposed to be racist,” he added.

Unesco’s index doesn’t reflect Malaysia’s diversity 

Eddin Khoo, who is patron of the cultural organisation Pusaka, said the ICDI does not necessarily reflect the actual diversity experienced by Malaysians on a daily basis.

“Inter-cultural dialogue is happening every day in the lives of Malaysians. There are more inter-cultural marriages now than before,” he said.

“As for formalised inter-cultural dialogues, it’s not that they are not happening, it’s just that they are ineffective,” he added.

Citing Pusaka’s efforts in advocating local performances with roots in other cultures, such as Teochew puppetry, Urumee Melum and Reog Ponogoro, Khoo said Malaysians should understand that the nation belongs to a “highly syncretic diasporic culture”.

“Malaysia is a place where everything can ‘fall and settle’. Why have we forgotten that? Stop pretending or subscribing to the idea of (cultural) puritanism that has never existed (here) in the first place,” Khoo added.

May 21 marks World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development.