NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.
I must admit to feeling a tad slighted when I read the recent reports of my friends and fellow comrades turning up on the first day of the Sarawak State Assembly in lounge suits instead of the ceremonial “number one” dress with songkok that was worn by everyone else.
Now, it must first and foremost be stated that no wrong was committed. The ceremonial uniform is not compulsory, and at no time did any breach of protocol occur. Neither is this issue a new one, having become a recurrent, though not persistent, occurrence at some of the legislative assemblies nationwide.
What is new, however, is the political reality today and with it greater expectations that are now imposed upon the DAP as we venture pointedly into the mainstream of our nation’s political consciousness. No longer are we a fringe party representing largely parochial interests, though awareness of this fact has not yet fully seeped into the minds of the party faithful.
Thus, it is a toxic combination of good intentions, ignorance and misdirected rigour that has resulted in actions that are perhaps quite unnecessary given the context of the DAP’s place in the Malaysian polity today.
Firstly, and most prevalently, is the somewhat anti-establishment tendency that has ingrained itself into the DAP psyche. This is both the culmination of four decades of sitting incessantly in opposition benches, as well as the limited democratic space available. Hence, what has resulted is a natural disposition towards opposing for the sake of opposing and a general lack of prudence in contextualising issues from a wider and more inclusive aspect.
In short, we have chaps causing controversy for the sake of it, and while this was fine when we were a party with only a handful of seats nationally, there is a discerning need for a more mature worldview in the current political climate.
Another factor is the lingering siege mentality amongst leaders and cadres schooled in an era now bygone. The DAP has traditionally seen its foes as the MCA and Gerakan, and thus political reproach between both sides are usually confined to Chinese-based issues. As such, the spectre of institutionalised Islamisation and perceived cultural hegemony, both hot issues in the Eighties and Nineties, are still alive and occupying the minds of certain sections of the party, and this is perhaps more so apparent across the South China Sea.
Again, the impetus is on us to move on with the times and out of our comfort zone towards a more centrist position. As a party with far more representation than both traditional rivals combined, we need to be cognisant of the fact that we have made the big leap into national relevance, while MCA and Gerakan no longer occupy the nation’s imagination.
Lastly, perception is the be all and end all in politics. I know for a fact that no cultural disrespect was meant by my Sarawakian colleagues, and that their rationale about saving the state some money (a full uniform apparently costs around RM2,000 to RM4,000) is not without its merits, but I think this incident also reveals an inherent lack of understanding of Malay, and by extension Malaysian, culture and sensitivities.
It may seem like a straightforward toss-up between an unnecessary triviality and an opportunity to make a statement against establishment excess, but for Malays and certainly for those in Peninsular Malaysia, there is a deeper cultural connotation at play.
To fully comprehend the complexities of Malay cultural psychology, one has to be appreciative of the very revealing testament that is encapsulated, in typical Malay fashion, in the old adage: “biar mati anak, jangan mati adat”, which roughly translates to “better for children to perish than to lose tradition.”
Crude, to be sure, but a telling insight that is evident when one considers that while Chinese racial discourse usually revolves around the loss of business and education opportunities, its Malay counterpart is often centred on the primordial sentiments of culture and religion. In other words, the priorities are clearly different. Therefore, if Malays are proverbially willing to sacrifice kin to save culture, one can be assured that the argument of saving a few thousand ringgit will not hold strong.
Still, I maintain that non-conformity can be a virtue, as I am certainly one to speak. Yet I also see the need to be more responsive towards the socio-cultural mores of our multi-cultural heritage, especially within the framework of a semi-feudalistic society in a constitutional monarchy. What may seem banal and costly to a few may be perceived as symbolically important and priceless to many others. We must realise this.
Perhaps it was the Malay in me who felt vexed, but I do believe that like me, many other Malays and indeed Malaysians now place greater expectations on the DAP, especially in our capacity to bridge the gap between an insular past and an inclusive future.
This is a crucial juncture in our party’s history, and whether we emerge truly Malaysianised depends very much on how we choose to view the world inasmuch as how the world chooses to view us.