By OOI KEE BENG for The Edge Malaysia, November 30, 2020
Malaysia is a country where identity politics has been running rampant for decades and where multiple layers of “us-versus-them” awareness has drawn public attention away from commonalities and undermined the high degree of cultural integration evident in its peri-urban and urban population.
Comprehensive politicisation has also programmed public responses to most issues to be immediate, fault-seeking and acrimonious.
There is little that is more disheartening to Malaysian ethnic minorities than to see ethnic exclusivism triumph in government. But such has been the trend in Malaysian politics for the last half century.
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What gets forgotten is the fact that Malaysian society has always been undergoing a natural slow-but-steady integrative process. The obvious example is Malaysian cuisine, of course, but drawing attention to that achievement should not detract from the broad cultural hybridisation that has not only transformed each of the many ethnicities, but also the individual attitudes of common folk.
As a quick example of how colourful and exciting the Malayan population was 100 years ago — and still is — if we were not that eager to simplify ourselves, the ethnic groups listed in the 1901 census for the Federated Malay States were the following: Europeans and Americans (17 subcategories); Eurasians; Chinese (Cantonese, Hokkiens, Hailams, Khehs, Straits-born, Teu-Chius, Kwong Hai, others); Malays and other natives of the archipelago (Aborigines, Achinese, Boyanese, Bugis, Dayaks, Javanese, Jawi-Pekan, Malays, Manilamen); Tamils and other natives of India (Bengalis, Burmese, not particularised Tamils); and other races (Africans, Annamese, Arabs, Armenians, Egyptians, Japanese, Jews, Persians, Siamese, Singhalese).
And we are not even talking about hybrids yet. Before bumiputeraism became the order of the day in the 1970s, having peranakan cultures living alongside each other was a phenomenon to take pride in, and was in fact an identity marker for Malaysianness. It is not all gone yet, despite the best efforts of racialist politics that have infected the multicultural population for so long.
Charles Hirschmann, in his exemplary study of Malaysian census classifications, notices something that helps explain how the simplifications began: “British attitudes toward the Malay community changed during the late nineteenth century in the direction of a more unquestioned belief in the weaknesses of the Malay character and the need for a strong paternalistic role for the colonial government. The problem was no longer the resistance of Malay rulers to British intervention but the British need for a justification for imperialism. Paternalism, the protection and guidance of the Malays, was the ideological justification for most of the colonial era (page 570 in The Meaning and Measurement of Ethnicity in Malaysia: An Analysis of Census Classifications, in The Journal of Asian Studies, 1987, pp 555-582)
Beyond the political acrimony, Malaysians do want to get along, and they have often been getting along. But for sensationalist reasons on the part of the mass media, and for opportunistic reasons on the part of the racialist politicians, anyone saying anything to offend fellow Malaysians, or at least their purported collective identity, is given attention and column space.
It has not been helpful that so many top leaders have claimed that they are their race and not their nationality first. They could, of course, have downplayed ethnicity instead, but in so happily championing a difference that cannot be bridged, they are simply sabotaging the nation-building process.
For all his faults — and there are many, some of which contributed tremendously to the pathology being discussed in this article — Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad did popularise the term “Bangsa Malaysia”.
The use of the term during the 1990s relieved, for almost a decade, the propensity of Malaysians to fall victim to racialist opportunism. The economic boom helped, of course, also teaching us that economic well-being and individual opportunities are the best antidote to inter-ethnic distrust.
Bangsa Malaysia supposes a work in progress on the part of the people. Lacking that, what we have instead is lip service about “unity government”. Formal unity at the top — which is impossible beyond rhetoric anyway — does not a united people make.
A sense of unity in a people comes from the people themselves living the wisdom of peaceful co-existence driven by curiosity in each other, exercising enough self-confidence to be trusting of each other, and realising that differences is a strength we give to each other.
In short, being collectively classified begets individual confusion; and becoming “us” begets “them” and lays the groundwork for manufactured conflict. Not all the blame should be placed at the doorstep of the racialist politician though. As noted above, the colonial project has much to answer for as well. But in the end, the individual must take some blame as well: there is comfort in being grouped into individual oblivion, and having one’s worldview simplified into group-defined ethics.
It is of ultimate significance that Malaysia is made up of diverse communities. But it must not be forgotten that the diversity in Malaysian living has been imbibed, incorporated and integrated into each individual.
What Malaysians should realise, and be proud of, is the fact he or she is that diversity. He or she is not outside of it. He or she is diverse as a Malaysian individual and diverse in ways different from other Malaysians. And all of them are created and generated by the land of diversity we call Malaysia.
Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of Penang Institute. His latest book is As Empires Fell: The Life and Times of Lee Hau-Shik, the First Finance Minister of Malaya (ISEAS, 2020).