Penangites are one proud people. That is not even a controversial statement. They are proud of their food, their history and their geography.
They have every reason to be proud. Penang has been the initiator of much is has been good for the country. It is the place where newspapers are born; it is the place where many of the best educated Malaysians come from; and it is the place where cultures have always blended so unconsciously—be this through the mixing of blood, architecture, clothing, aesthetics, beliefs and food.
All these things of which we are proud are all true. But what of it? What are all these things good for if they do not make us active promoters of the values contained in that very special legacy?
To me, what Malaysia – and Penang – has to offer the world is our history of peaceful multicultural existence. This is a gift that many of us have forgotten over the last five decades. This is not due only to the racialist discourses that have formed the backdrop for the country’s nation-building, but also to the fact that the country was founded at a time of insecurity throughout the world; and the formula for independence was one of inter-racial compromise created under pressure from extreme global class warfare.
But much water has flowed under the bridge, and just as nation building happens in stages, political discourses as well need to shift.
What we are seeing today in Malaysia is a struggle being fought between Malaysians over how they should see themselves. Should they perpetuate the idea that they can function only if their ethnic identities are prioritized; should they imagine themselves a people forever limited by their ethnic diversity; or should they instead go beyond that and see themselves as a people who has already gone through the squabbles that multiculturalism endows them—something western countries are going through at the moment—and who is therefore able to enjoy that diversity and who celebrate the potential tolerance and broad-mindedness that such a history brings?
Penang being what it is—a port founded at the edge of the peninsula; home to travellers from across the sea who knew much about the outside world; and therefore unavoidably cosmopolitan in essence—requires that its people be more than ever to be true to its age-old slogan and lead the way again, this time expressly proclaiming multiculturalism as a historical condition that is both an inspiration and a gift.
It is time that Penangites think up ways to secure multiculturalism as the value of the future. The process has already started. I am sure most of you would have felt it.
The ethnic and religious sniping that is still going on nationwide should become a thing of the past, and that can happen today—if we want it. It’s all up to us.
OOI KEE BENG