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Malaysia’s togetherness survives despite its leaders

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By Ooi Kee Beng, for The Edge, Malaysia. 26 December 2013.

Whether we like it or not, a large part of the political and administrative infrastructure that Malaysia has today comes from the British. There is much that is of value in that system, and it is up to later generations – meaning the present one, i.e. us – to be discerning if we are to make full use of it.

But to throw out the baby with the bathwater when one is overwhelmed by nationalist sentiments is never a wise move. China’s Cultural Revolution is a most poignant case in point. In Malaysia, this throwing out of the baby has been going on for 55 years, and has been happening in slow motion, making it less obvious. Not only have the country’s institutions been slowly downgraded for political reasons, our sense of togetherness has also been eroded.

That is why it is so important for young Malaysians—and I would say for all post-colonial populations throughout the world—to be as learned about their own history as possible, and to be analytical and insightful about their heritage. It is through understanding why things are what they are, that they can adapt inherited structures to suit present needs, and not go into a state of denial instead.

Malaysia is one of the lucky new countries in that its independence did not come at a high price, as it did in countries like Vietnam or Indonesia. There were reasons for this, one of which was that our neighbours were obviously having a hard time throwing off the yoke of colonialism while we in relative peace had the luxury of working out how best to become a new country.

We saw how Sumatra had to go through a social revolution that was both bloody and destructive in 1946. We saw the Indian sub-continent divide itself with a painful separation in India and East and West Pakistan in 1947. We also saw China being embroiled in civil war in 1945-49.

Leaving colonialism behind was never an easy undertaking; and Malaysia, being a latecomer in gaining independence managed to avoid quite a few traps that could have made nationhood a seriously bloody and traumatic affair.

Malaysia could not have enjoyed the relatively peaceful period of nation-building over the last 50 years if it had not started out with a competent—and very powerful—police force, capable civil services at federal and state levels, good legal professionals, a relatively well-educated population with good schools and teachers, and adept leaders from the various major ethnic groups.

But having that luck also meant that many crucial issues never got to be properly aired in public debate. Or rather, the lid was progressively put on such debates after 1969. Mahathir’s era made that worse.

What we are witnessing today in Malaysia is properly understood as the latest stage in the long process of post-colonial development. This has involved turning local and colonial economies into a national one, relating well to neighbours, and forging a national identity that knows itself as “Malaysian”.

Economically, Malaysia may have done very well at times, but there are clear signs—such as the increasing budget deficit—that the good times are over if reforms are not properly implemented in the financial sector and in fiscal policy thinking.

This problem is minor, however, when compared to the project of creating a comfortable Malaysian identity, which is of course what building a nation is all about. It is here that the development of the country’s political discourse has twisted itself into a deadlock.

In fact, in forbidding freedom of expression so extensively, a culture has been created in Malaysia where argumentativeness passes for intelligence; crankiness poses as reasoning; threats masquerade as rationale; irrationality pretends to be profound; racism calls itself patriotism; coercion acts as justification and to be more sensitive is to be more right.

Thus, the problem that Malaysia suffers from is something very fundamental. It is the absence of sufficient agreement on what the country is and where it is supposed to be going. The key question still echoes in the background: Who has the right to contribute to a future Malaysian culture, and who not?

The citizenship-for-votes issue in Sabah, which has now flared up again—leading to former premier Mahathir Mohamed’s outrageous claim that whatever it was he did wrong in Sabah, was not worse than what the first premier, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra did just before independence when the latter decided on broad citizenship rights for all ethnic groups—is symptomatic of the erosion of national vision, and of how the culture of demagogic politicking must undermine the sense of togetherness that is so necessary to successful nation building.

It is hard to have a clear idea of nationhood when after 55 years, who is Malaysian, really, and who is not is still be argued. Indeed, the miracle is how well Malaysians have stayed patriotic all these years despite the inherent divisiveness in the country’s political discourses. Good thing there is more sense in common folk than there has been in their leaders.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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