NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.
Sometimes it takes fresh eyes to notice the obvious, even when it has always been staring us right in the face.
My moment of epiphany came during a Tariq Ramadan lecture in Penang last month. The Oxford don was in the midst of expounding on his pet topic — socio-cultural identity conflict — when he began to veer into the sensitive Malaysian racial debate.
Now, Tariq Ramadan is no stranger to identity issues. He is, as he describes himself, both a European and a Muslim, two labels which he does not wear loosely. If anything, he is an unabashed Westerner and an unapologetic Islamist — an oxymoronic concept if one subscribes to Samuel Huntington’s dichotomous paradigm. However, Ramadan has proven that both identities are not only reconcilable, but inherently compatible. Battling this polemic has been his lifelong raison d’ĕtre, hence it is no surprise that he could immediately recognise and make sense of the patterns of identity politics in our country.
“Malaysia,” Ramadan surmised, “is a multicultural society based on mutual mistrust.”
In one simple sentence, he had succinctly framed the Malaysian dilemma. As the realisation of his remarks began to set in, Ramadan goes on to point out the underlying source of our nation’s malady: “What your country lacks is a truly inclusive national narrative.”
“It is not enough,” added the grandson of Hassan Al-Banna, “to be a citizen by law. It is more necessary to be part of a national narrative that integrates everyone.”
In essence, Ramadan was describing what he perceived to be a country with split, if not divergent, identities. We may all call ourselves Malaysians, but not all of us have been truly embraced as members of a Malaysian nation. This is due to the fact that, beyond empty sloganeering and expensive public relations campaigns, our leaders have not really expended real efforts to craft a unifying narrative and a common understanding of what being part of a Malaysian nation actually means and entails.
After 55 years of nationhood, one would think that we would have a clear idea of what it means to be Malaysian. Unfortunately, what we have is a hodgepodge of varying concepts defined in narrow communal terms. This was admitted to even by the longest-serving prime minister of our country when he said that the 1Malaysia slogan created by this present government “clearly means different things to different races.” This trend can in fact be traced back to our country’s genesis.
August 31, 1957 saw the birth of two different countries. For one half of the newly-independent people, the country was called Persekutuan Tanah Melayu. Meanwhile, the other half saw it as Malaya. Two names for one country, and both with vastly divergent connotations. These differences were then institutionalised, resulting in the precarious situation that we have today, in which there are some Malaysians who are considered to be more Malaysian than others.
Now, I do not doubt the motivations behind the crafters of our Constitution. Certainly, our former colonial masters felt the need to make amends for all their injudicious meddling. After a century and a half of exploiting our land, resources and people, and not to mention drastically re-engineering the local demography, some quick fixes were needed to allay their guilt. Hence, the Malays (its modern definition being in actuality a colonial construct) were constitutionally accorded a “special position” in order to protect them from a large and economically more developed immigrant population. For the sake of unity and convenience, this was agreed to by all stakeholders, including the non-Malay leaders. Economic equality for the Malays in exchange for political equality for the non-Malays. At the time, it seemed like the best compromise for everyone.
However, this arrangement also meant that if national development was a race, then the competitors had been lined up facing opposite directions. As the race got under way it was inevitable that the socio-cultural gap would widen as each raced further and further away from the other. Today, while other nations around the world grapple with globalisation and compete for a share of the global economic pie, we are still stuck in an anachronistic quagmire. The imperial legacy of divide and rule continues to be our national ethos. We are led by race-based political parties. Our national policies are guided by a racial framework. Our public rhetoric revolves around narrow socio-cultural issues. We can’t even decide what language should be used to teach our children.
We need to move beyond this. The fact is that nearly every Malaysian is, at some point in their lineage, of immigrant background. Some are merely older immigrants. To claim — or worse, to institutionalise — racial superiority based on such loose and meaningless foundations is disingenuous, especially when our country has now produced three generations of pure Malaysians. What is needed now is to bring all of us together in a common cause towards a common destination. To paraphrase Tariq Ramadan, we should no longer ask about where we came from but where we are going together.
This is the new national narrative that is needed. One that enjoins us together as Malaysians; equal before the law, dignified as citizens and collectively contributing towards national development. But in order to achieve this, we have to first unshackle ourselves from the subjugating chains of racial stratification.
And so, as we celebrate our 55th National Day, we must necessarily ask ourselves: do we want to spend the next 55 years struggling to compromise and tolerate one another, arguing over language, over racial superiority, over who deserves special rights, over who is more Malaysian?
Or are we prepared to press the reset button?