August 16, 2017
Malaysia’s great – and recent – identity crisis
If ever there was a country chronically afflicted by an identity crisis, it would be ours. Debates rage on about how we should define our identities. For example, do I say I am Malaysian first, or Malay first, or Muslim first?
But why not all or none of the above? After all, many of us from George Town may consider ourselves Penangite first.
While I believe identities are fluid and should not be set in stone, there is something to be said about the pervasiveness of racial identity in our public sphere. Discourse on almost every issue, be it the economy, education and especially anything political, cannot escape the inevitable question of race.
In the Malaysian context, this is translated into the great dichotomy of our country – the division between the Bumiputeras, a bureaucratic label with no constitutional basis, against the others, who are collectively reduced to the ignominious label of “non-Bumiputera”. As the state actively promotes a distinction between these two groups of citizens, the perception now pervades that there are some Malaysians who are considered to be more Malaysian than others.
Ironically, even the Bumiputera identity itself is full of ambiguities and contradictions. Deriving its modern definition from the genesis of the New Economic Policy (NEP), the term generally encompasses the Malays, the Orang Asli and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak. Yet while government employment and education quotas are supposed to favour the Bumiputeras, its practical application has raised questions about some Bumiputeras being more Bumiputera than others.
Issues revolving around Bumiputera, particularly Malay, rights and privileges are often emotional and confrontational in nature. In fact, for a race that is probably the most inclusive in definition, as anyone can be a Malay provided they fulfil the constitutional requirements of language, religion and culture, the Malay race is perhaps one of the most exclusive and parochial of political identities in Malaysia today. Not only have they walled themselves into a self-created mental fortification, Malay nationalism also adopts a fiercely antagonistic attitude towards their politically constructed rivals, the non-Bumiputeras.
It is no wonder then that former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad once commented that the current Prime Minister’s “1Malaysia” slogan would never be coherent, simply because it essentially means different things to different people.
According to sociologist Frederick Holst, identity has become central to socio-politics in Malaysia because both public institutions and social structures have undergone a process of ethnicisation – the infusing and intertwining of economic or political contestations with collective identities. As a result, the question of race, or more accurately, ethnicity, cannot be separated from any form of discussion regarding our country’s social and political dimensions.
Yet, it is important to realise that such a situation is not naturally occurring but instead a social construction. In other words, the ethnicisation of Malaysian society has taken place through a conscious agenda to create an identity that is primus inter pares (first among equals) in order to legitimise policies that favour a certain ethnic group. Hence, the construction of the Bumiputera identity. While the term is not new and has been used in various contexts prior to independence, its adoption as an umbrella identity for the Malays was essentially a post-NEP concept.
At another level, the concept of “race” is also a problematic one because our understanding of it is essentially derived from colonial knowledge. In fact, race as a genealogical concept to describe the societies in the Malay Archipelago was almost non-existent in pre-colonial times. Often, race was used to describe the milieu, such as humanity, as was the case in the Malay Annals or the Sulalatus Salatin, which I quote below:
Maka sahut Nila Pahlawan, “Adapun kami ini bukan daripada jin dan peri, dan bukan kami daripada bangsa indera; bahawa adalah bangsa kami ini daripada manusia.”
Similarly, the concept of “migrants” or “pendatang” has no historical basis. In Hikayat Hang Tuah, for example, the word “asing” or “foreign” is rarely used, and only in reference to foreign countries. When describing traders from foreign lands, the simple and universal term dagang or merchant is used, without any ethnic, racial or national connotation.
In fact, the concept of race as a social identity only became dominant following the arrival of colonialism. As a case in point, the first modern census in the country was conducted in 1871 in the Straits Settlements and had no reference to “race.” Instead, people were categorised into a multitude of ethnicities, such as Acehnese, Boyanese, Bugis, Burmese, Jawi Peranakan, Malay, Malayalam and so on. It was only in later censuses that the term “race” was used in the context that we are familiar with and the Malay, Chinese and Indian races officially became collective identities.
Overcoming our psychological problem
As can be seen, our own history has much to offer in trying to make sense of our post-colonial nation-state. If we seem confused as a society and unable to escape our identity crisis, it is because we do not truly appreciate the richness of our origins. As controversial as it may be, the conversation about who we are, where we came from and who this country belongs to is one that needs to take place. However, it also needs to be discussed rationally and objectively, without being pulled into the myopic frames of ethnocentrism.
Contrary to what the federal government thinks, the way to foster such constructive discourse is to allow greater space and more debate, rather than stifle alternative opinions through draconian legislation. But while ideas should be allowed to propagate, there must also be room for them to be challenged. It is only through such a process, of mature deliberation and openness to contrarian opinions, that we can shake off the noise surrounding the issue and finally discover our true Malaysian identity – or identities.
Zairil Khir Johari is MP for Bukit Bendera, Penang, and Executive Director of Penang Institute.