A Truly Inclusive Narrative Needed for Malaysia

August 31, 2012

A Truly Inclusive Narrative Needed for Malaysia

by Zairil Khir Johari (via e-mail)

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 1 Malaysia 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 focus on 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?

13 thoughts on “A Truly Inclusive Narrative Needed for Malaysia

  1. Some may claim that ApaNama today is not unlike Barack Obama seeking his re-election as seen by Republicans. Inclusive narrative? Don’t bet on it. ApaNama divides Malaysians against one another, re-invigorates and re-ignites class warfare along racial lines defending the indefensible — an entitlement culture that threatens the progress of a nation made under the first three prime ministers.

  2. A well written piece. We need leaders with courage to achieve this noble objective. It is surely about time. Though some will say we will need more time. We need a paradigm shift. Yes, there should not be the question of where we have come from but the question of where we as a people, Malaysians, are going in our shared future together.

  3. A merdeka spirit as national narrative…? How about:

    All men and women are born equal in their intrinsic worth. We have gained merdeka so that we are free people who do not submit to former, current, or future non-democratic government. We value freedom of religions so much so each of us take into our own hand on what to believe. We help the least fortunate ones so that they can merdeka; once merdeka, they move on to be the born-again free people who are entrusted to help themselves and their community. To prosper and successful are applauded. To serve to be merdeka is transcendental.

  4. inclusive narrative? all I have ever heard amongst Malaysians is the word ‘exclusive”. they love that word. it makes them feel important. Now having spent my life far away and looking fromthe outside, I know that was to keep some out of the “inner circles”. Whatever Bull that means. Even during Raya, which is meant to be the all inclusive, different people get treated differently. There are the VVIPs, the VIPs then there is the rest apparently. I thought the M’sians ARE the VIPs and as such they must be on top of that triangle. But no. So this inclusive narrative is all talk? (pun intended)

  5. Reblogged this on The right of reply and commented:

    Look at Zairil taking a a high moral ground. He talks about inclusiveness and focusing less on race. But he purposely omitted one major factor that leads to exclusivity supposedly because its against DAP policy. And that is our policy of segregating our youngs into different race based schools. It has deprived of my children of having any chinese friends. Our youngs dont grow up laughing, crying and playing with each other races. Yet we expect them to think less of race when they are adult. So stop pretending Zairil. You declare you’re against race based schools. Then you can talk about inclusiveness.
    I welcome this kind of comment from you. –Din Merican

  6. Our leaders are not visionaries. They were merely appointed just because the party has the majority. Malaysians have no say. Yes, we vote but not for the PM who is the one who appoints the entire government of Mr. Yes-es.
    In Malaysia the key person is the PM. Most of our PM is brokered by the passing PM to protect his assets. That is why Malaysia cannot get out of unpopular policies. How are we to progress then? Can anyone named the present PM academic qualification? What is his major, etc. What qualify him to be PM? Malaysia may have visions but most are not well taught through and became white elephants wasting lots of money not to mention time.

    The Indonesian is way ahead of us in term of identity. They have an identified language, BI and Indonesia name. You don’t hear them quarrelling about races, languages, maybe sometime religion in certain areas. They are now battling corruptions. Their so call anti-corruption agency is taking the Police head-on.

    If Malaysian continue to vote for the present government we are doomed. It is not that PAS, DAP or PK is better. It is whether Malaysian know what we really want because it is Malaysian who is corrupting the government for the past 55 years. Malaysian needs to learn how to kick out not preforming government to progress. BN has digressed Malaysia for 55 years.
    We make a big do about the Vision thing. What we need is leadership. We have politicians, not leaders. There is a big difference between the two.–Din Merican

  7. And that is our policy of segregating our youngs into different race based schools -Ellese

    There are not only race-based schools in Malaysia but also schools based on religion (the mushrooming of Islamic schools both government and private) and of course the international schools. Why? Plainly speaking, more and more parents (irrespective of race) have lost confidence in the government-run national schools.

    Our children are separated along racial, religion as well as social-based education system; and our Minister of Education insists that our education system is among the best in the world. The rise of alternative schooling systems in Malaysia is due to the deteriorating standard of the national schools.

  8. Zairil i must say is a prolific writer. In part he said it the right way : Economic equality for the Malays in exchange for political equality of the non-Malays ( at time of transition ) – as the Quid pro Quo TACITLY agreed via the Merdeka Exchange. Mind you, not ordinary people that crafted out the Constitution, but legal Icons in the team of the Reid Commission.
    What Zairil misconstrued or misinterpreted is when he says to the effect “….one half saw it as Tanah Melayu, the other half ” Malaya”, with vastly divergent connotations….These differences were then Instituionalized, resulting in the precarious situation in which there are some Malaysians who are considered more Malaysian than others…..etc – alluding to the Special Privilege position concerning Article 153, Zairil went on to say ” some quick fixes were needed to allay their ” guilt” ” in obvious refrence to British “exploitations ” of Tanah Melayu ” – that’s too simplisitic if not mischievous on his part, as if anything of that Magnitude could be a simple ” fix ” ! He is contradicting it anyway by his own recognition of the Quid pro Quo all the various Leaders had agreed to, and but for which, the Majlis Raja-Raja will NOT have signed the Sacred Constitution in the transition ( and/or Conveyance)

    Come on Zairil, ” Malaya” was a concoction by the Brits, which is the usual propensity anyway…

  9. Jamal Majid is another ‘alter ego’? But ‘alter’ means the other (self). Discovered in the 1700s by one Anton Mesmer when he put his subject under hypnosis.

  10. Guys, stop beating around the bush. The real problem in Malaysia is religion and the government’s policy to continue segregating Malaysians at birth by race. Both are the root causes in hindering intermarriage and true integration of our people. We cannot keep blaming the Brits, they had nothing to do with our governance over half a century ago. It is our own fault for allowing the government to perpetuate these policies. You cannot blame the minorities for the ills of the country. Minorities have little to no possibility of charting the political future of any country.

  11. “Minorities have little to no possibility of charting the political future of any country.” — James

    The measure of a democracy is how it treats its minorites. And there can be no doubt that Malaysia is a dismal failure when it comes to the treatment of the country’s minorities.

    It is not a question of minorites charting anything.

  12. Based on previous comments, I can surmise that this segment of Malaysian population are still not prepared to move on. Still stuck in the past and bogged down with the present. But I suppose this view is not representative of the younger populace which Zairil represents.

    In addition, this discussion completely omits East Malaysia so (again) our Malaysian bird is still a long way from taking off.

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