Ending the Malaysian Culture Wars
In Parliament not too long ago, some MPs expressed outrage that road signage in Penang now feature multiple languages; the controversy over language, the royalty, and other aspects of the "special status" of the Malays has been simmering for decades, and these culture wars seems doomed to be with us always. But the problem with our politicians who have been the product of these culture wars is that the present generation of Malaysians don't relate to issues that aren't issues; whether Malay is the only language on signs or the sultans are given unquestioned authority are simply not as important as the reality on the ground for a whole new cohort of Malaysians, Malay or non-Malay.
In Malaysia, our culture wars were fought over what identity Malaysians should take; whether we should all call ourselves Malay and adopt the Malay way of life, whether we should cleave to the cultures of our ancestors and refuse to budge, or whether we should opt for a third way. In the 1960s and 1970s these were very real and potent issues; cementing the status of Malay as our national language and the institutions of the rulers were the sites of fierce political battles in our history. But our politicians today are refighting wars that have frankly long been settled.
Nobody today seriously wants to throw the Malays out of the country, as many angry demonstrators in the May of '69 demanded; nobody wants to abolish Malay as the national language, or overthrow the rulers. You can make the case that the Sedition Act and other draconian laws are merely keeping the lid on such radical sentiments, but it's a pretty groundless case; even on the most extreme of extreme internet sites, nobody is even throwing these ideas out there — these ideas simply do not have any more political relevance.
So why are we refighting the culture wars —why do we still act as if the position of the Malays or the position of traditionally Malay institutions remain under threat? Is it because a handful of road signs in tourist destinations or a review of an economic policy somehow will completely and radically reshape the foundation of our country? Of course not — if the basic structure of our country were under threat, you would have people in the streets yelling that Kuala Lumpur belongs to the Chinese. You would have politicians suggesting that we overthrow the rulers and establish an Islamic or socialist republic. The fact is, public sentiment is overwhelmingly uninterested in these issues of years gone by.
For Malaysians who have grown up as Malaysians, things are set in stone. We don't care too much about the rulers; we don't care too much about arguing over whose culture is better. We eat each others' food, we listen to each others' music, and we feel as comfortable in batik as we do in the samfu. Some of us are more insular than others, but in general, we grow up as Malaysian; we don't feel out of place, we don't feel our culture under threat, until someone tells us that it is.
And the problem with our politics at the moment is that literally every prominent national leader, be he Najib Razak, Anwar Ibrahim, or Karpal Singh, is a product of the culture wars that raged from the ‘60s till the early ‘80s; everything they do is framed by the political experiences which burnished and tempered their character. They innately speak of things as if the key issue is Malay identity, or Chinese identity. They think in terms of the politics of old; everything is a threat to somebody's race, somebody's culture, somebody's institutions. They are almost physically incapable of conceiving of a Malaysia where people have grown up living under the status quo ante; where for many, these issues are long dead and buried.
The generation that is coming of age today cares more about jobs and opportunities than it does about the ketuanan of someone. People understand the inherent injustice of a policy that treats everyone from one race as innately disadvantaged, and everyone from another race as innately advantaged. People want to be able to go to college, to hold down a steady job, and enjoy life — not get embroiled in some massive debate about a national identity that, for them, has already been settled. This is how the generation of today views the world.
To the credit of many of our leaders, they have tried to reshape their political paradigms into something that better accords with this new generation of Malaysians. Anwar in particular managed to seize on these ideas and coasted on them to unheard of political success in the last election; Lim Kit Siang has also managed to adjust to the new pragmatic realities of the Malaysia we know today. Even Najib is playing catch-up, trying to talk of more liberal and less heavy-handed approaches to governance. Yet, the culture wars of yesteryear continue to be refought by politicians like Mahathir Mohamad and Karpal Singh, who seem unable to realise that for a whole new generation of Malaysians, the nonsense they blather about the ketuanan of some race, religion or culture is mostly irrelevant.
I have long held that we cannot truly move forward in Malaysian politics, and truly get down to the business of government, until a new generation of politicians in tune with this new generation of Malaysians can take power. This seismic shift in how we view the world is something young leaders like Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, Nurul Izzah Anwar, Khairy Jamaluddin, and Tony Pua seem more comfortable with. They understand that most young Malaysians just want a government that can give them every reasonable opportunity to succeed, regardless of where they come from or who they are, politics of culture or identity be damned.
For all the good our old guard is presently attempting to do — and I do support them in whatever efforts they may make to change Malaysia for the better — they are simply not a credible vanguard for a seismic shift in how Malaysian politics works. I like Anwar's race-blind approach to welfare economics, but he cannot be a credible spokesperson for efforts to promote this when he built his political career on fighting the culture wars. I may agree with Najib that the NEP needs to be at the very least rethought, but he can't seriously speak for that when he was eagerly out there battling for ketuanan Melayu as a young politician. Even if Lim Kit Siang can present a pragmatic and open-minded case for secularism or the promotion of alternative streams of education, he has no authority to speak on these issues when he exploited them to fight the culture wars. These men clearly mean well, and I wish them the best in implementing these various agendas they have laid out. However, as an objective observer, I cannot see them getting very far when they are all waist-deep in a heap of dung they have flung at each other — it is a bit too late to start digging themselves out of this now.
All this is not to say that culture and identity are no longer potent issues, because they are; there are still longstanding rifts in our society that must be healed, and our government must play a huge role in that. But the key difference is, the generations of old viewed the world through the lenses of culture and race; the generation of today views the world through the lenses of opportunity and joie de vivre — we want to live life to the fullest, to accomplish all we can with what we have. Every generation of Malaysians has made these things their priorities, of course — the difference is in what tops the list: identity topped the list for the generations past, but opportunity tops the list for the generation today. This key difference of priorities is what so drastically swung the tide in the March elections, where one side promised opportunity, and the other side promised another clash of cultures and races.
The leaders of tomorrow will be those who can deliver the best opportunities for Malaysians to use the talents and ability they have, to enjoy their lives to the fullest. Those who try to build their political careers on fighting the wars of decades gone by will soon find their staying power limited and in short supply. We are on the verge of a new kind of politics, one built on more than stale issues of cultural superiority or ethnic dominance — one built on pragmatism and ability to deliver the goods.
First published in The Malaysian Insider.