August 31, 2009
Malays speaking without fear
by Nurul Izzah Anwar
I can’t say that I know Datuk Zaid Ibrahim very well. Our past encounters have been limited to a fleeting hello in front of the steps of my alma mater, the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in 2006, another chat during a reception in honour of Datuk Ambiga Sreevanesagan in June and, most recently, at the PKR’s recent EGM. It’s amazing, but perhaps unsurprising that he has in these three years evolved from an ambiguous reformist in UMNO into the conscience of all Malaysians.
I had always been impressed by his outspokenness, and his willingness to fearlessly voice out his views on issues of national importance is nothing short of inspirational. Zaid does not mince his words where many hesitate to call a spade a spade, especially where it matters the most.
An articulate Malay speaking out for a multiracial and progressive Malaysia is terribly important in this current political climate. For our own community, Zaid epitomises how the Malays might redefine ourselves, to re-imagine a world where we do not think that we are inferior or threatened but are rather confident in whom we are.
In reading Zaid’s book Saya Pun Melayu, I sense the need for Malays to embrace a new paradigm on what it means to be Malay. Many indeed are doing so and this is a heartening. “Malay” need no longer carry connotations of dependency on the state, insecurity, or the crippling feeling alienation and the lack of self-worth.
The word “Malay” can and must eventually mean a call to embrace a broader Malaysian identity, along with a true, inclusive nationalism that is proud of who we are individually but also in what we have accomplished together. We can be sure of our identities and yet still be a part of something greater than all of us — and this is something all the ethnic groups in Malaysia ought to aspire to.
Zaid’s book highlights that fact that we need to look beyond the stereotypes and take an objective, albeit positive look at our community’s accomplishments. We have made great strides in business, the arts, education and the professions. Our success extends from Lembah Pantai where Malays own vibrant businesses selling products made by Malays to the flourishing nasi lemak stalls in Kota Baru.
We attend leading universities throughout the world, increasingly through our own merit. We can count internationally recognised choreographers, painters, cartoonists, writers, and film directors amongst our numbers.
Beyond these markers, our success can more often that not be seen at home through our everyday acts of compassion and sensitivity to others, which spread to our fellow Malaysians to become a national virtue. The kindness shown towards our children, parents and neighbours is perhaps one of the most important signs of who we Malays are as a community. These are real achievements that no one can or would want to take from us.
I’m not denying that we still have a long way to go in moving our community forward, nor am I unmindful that a lot of our successes would not have been in possible without the NEP and its institutions. However, it has become patently obvious that these structures are now holding the Malays back, and that the world has changed since then.
The Malays and, as a-matter-of-fact, all Malaysians need to change as well if we want to remain relevant in this world. We need to step away from our obsession with all things racial and realise that the project of nation-building is not a zero-sum game. Malaysia can never succeed until and unless its entire people feel like they are truly a part of it.
Why then does the old paradigm of ethnic insecurity persist? Why does suspicion and acrimony towards our fellow Malaysians and they towards us still linger? Why are mainstream newspapers calling for ethnic conflict, accusing minority communities of all sorts of ludicrous plots?
The sad reality is that these myths are being perpetuated by UMNO and Barisan Nasional for their own gain. The fact is that UMNO wants to keep the Malay community under its suzerainty forever. They do this by focusing on what we have supposedly not achieved, rather than acknowledging our gains and potential.
They claim to want to protect and uplift the Malay community, but all they have been doing for the last few years is playing on their fears and prejudices. The same can be said for the Barisan components with the non-Malays. This glass-half-empty mentality is being used by UMNO/BN to protect each other and to ward off challenges to their stranglehold on power.
We’ve seen from the case of Zaid of how UMNO demonises anyone who steps out of the pattern of complete loyalty to the party and who have different ideas on how to improve the livelihoods of Malays and Malaysians. We have also as of late seen their scare tactics in action. They have labeled people as “traitors” for calling for a new path of development for Malaysia. They prefer to protect their interests rather than allow the Malaysian people — especially the Malays — to benefit from reform, less corruption and more inclusion.
UMNO also regrettably perpetuates the myth that the Malay community is perpetually under threat from their non-Malay counterparts, and that UMNO is the only party that can save them from this supposed “servitude”. This, rather than anything else, is why race relations have gotten worse in Malaysia.
You cannot expect harmony in a country where its largest ethnic group is constantly bombarded with the message that the minorities are supposedly out to get them and take away their rights. Yet, they chose to follow this tactic since they believe in the short term this will strengthen UMNO and bring Malays back to the party.
They use these “attacking” tactics because they cannot offer anything else. They have shown that they would prefer to entrench those in power rather than allow new ideas and reforms to increase our chances for greater success. There is a real danger that their short-sightedness may cost future generations of Malaysians dearly.
The fact is that Malays have nothing to fear. We are demographically the largest ethnic group in Malaysia and the birth rate is going to keep it that way. Our position in the constitution is enshrined and this isn’t going to change either.
That is what UMNO and the Malay extremists do not get, and what the community as a whole needs to understand. The non-Malays and Malays who challenge UMNO are not seeking to reduce the position of the Malays in anyway, but to defend and uplift all Malaysians. We have to understand that we are all tied together and that we all have a stake in the land. We cannot survive individually as Malays, Chinese or Indians but as Malaysians.
Our non-Malay fellow citizens are not “challenging” our rights or “insulting” or culture and religion — rather they are calling for our nascent nationhood to be allowed to achieve it’s full potential than for us to remain stuck in our ethnic and mental ghettos. The liberals and moderates amongst the non-Malays also suffer from the depredations of extremists within their own communities — they deserve our support as well. The wave of reactionary politics that is engulfing us can only be turned back if progressive Malaysians stand firm against their threats and untruths.
While it is true that much more needs to be done to address those who have not benefited — for all Malaysians — the focus on what we don’t have rather on what we have accomplished only undermines us. We need to imagine a better future, for Malays and Malaysians — this will incidentally make it easier for all of us to achieve what we might lack.
The Malaysia of tomorrow cannot be one in which we are blinded by fear and negativity. The first step in imagining and defining a better future for all of us is to open our eyes and speak out like Zaid and others like him.