Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

More Torn Than Ever About Question of Unity

Written by johnleemk on 4:27:22 pm Aug 5, 2008.

We have just entered the month of Merdeka as a nation for the 51st time — the thorny issue of East Malaysia aside. It is really a shame that we have yet to come to terms with unity. Over fifty years on, we are more torn than ever about what kind of unity we want and need, when what we should have been united behind was clearer than ever over half a century ago.

Today we are embroiled in talk of "Malay unity". UMNO and PAS, two predominantly Malay parties, even though one permits non-Malay bumiputra and the other permits non-bumiputra Muslims to join, are discussing areas they have in common, for the sake of Malay unity.

Strangely enough, nobody has bothered to define "Malay unity" so the Malaysian public can actually know what is going on. Like "Islamic state" and "Malay rights", "Malay unity" has become a standard catchphrase, something to be supported by Malay Muslims and something to be opposed by anyone else.

What are the Malays supposed to unite behind? An UMNO-PAS political coalition? The ideology of ketuanan Melayu, already rejected by de facto Pakatan Rakyat leader Anwar Ibrahim? Islamic laws, namely hudud and qisas? This has to be clear.

The whole premise of the Barisan Nasional coalition in reality is national unity through intraracial unity. When the Malays unite behind UMNO, the Chinese behind MCA and the Indians behind MIC — and all the other crazy nuts behind the various mosquito parties — then the whole country will be united, or so the thinking goes.

The obvious problem is that not everyone will agree politically. Some Malays are for ketuanan Melayu, some are against it. Some Malays want the hudud law in every state applied to everyone, some want it only in states which choose it and applied to Muslims only, while others insist that as a secular state, Malaysia should never implement hudud. And on less touchy issues, some Malays are protectionist while others are for free markets. Some Chinese want to keep the Sedition Act while others want to abolish it. Some Indians think we already have free and fair elections while others think our elections are blatantly rigged. It is blatantly obvious to any person with a couple of brain cells that no human being will ever agree on every political issue, whether they are from the same race or not.

So why then should everyone from one race support one political party, and by implication one political stand? The understanding according to the BN formula is that party leaders will hash out "sensitive issues" in private — the different ethnic communities elect BN leaders to represent them in sensitive intercommunal negotiations, not to take specific stands. So therefore we do not vote based on the issues, but on the people.

The obvious flaw is that the people we elect as leaders will choose to pursue courses of action we disagree with. So for fifty years we have had to put up with a simple choice: either blindly accept whatever one racial leader tells us, or pick another leader to represent our race.

Obviously this kind of political system is not tenable. You can make the argument that a politically immature and heterogeneous society such as ours was then cannot tolerate full democracy, although I would probably disagree. But modern Malaysia is moving away from this kind of thing.

Issues such as fundamental liberties and economic advancement are more important than race, after all. And our founding fathers anticipated this, as you can easily tell from the formulation of our Proclamation of Independence.

Compare ours with that of Brunei, which gained independence 27 years after us. The Bruneian Proclamation declares Brunei "a sovereign, democratic and independent Malay Muslim monarchy". Our Proclamation, on the other hand, announces that we "shall be for ever a sovereign democratic and independent State founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of its people".

Our founding fathers were not too worried about things as petty as race. They did not establish us as a Malay state or a Muslim state; they did not need to call for Malay unity or Muslim unity. Even if they did believe that in the short term, some authoritarianism was necessary to clamp down on ethnic tension, they knew that in the long run, all that matters is that the people of Malaysia are happy, that they have liberty and justice.

So what were UMNO and PAS talking about when they met over "Malay unity"? Was it about how to improve the lot of the Malays by lording it over other Malaysians with some ideology of ketuanan? Or was it a more forward-looking talk, based on the principles our founding fathers espoused, looking to further the happiness and liberties of all Malaysians?

I wish it was the latter. But if that were so, would it not be better for us to label these talks as dealing with "Malaysian unity", as opposed to "Malay unity"? When will we be able to talk about the importance of being Malaysian in more fundamental terms, as in our Proclamation of Independence, instead of ridiculous non-issues such as the number of people flying the national flag?

First published in The Malaysian Insider.

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