Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Amalgamation, not Assimilation or Apartheid

Written by johnleemk on 1:52:04 pm Apr 24, 2007.
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When it comes to talking about Malaysia's plural society, there seem to be only two dominant paradigms. One is assimilation; the other is apartheid.

The model of assimilation is advocated and supported mainly by radical Malays, whose concept of Malaysia is as a Malay country. To be a true Malaysian, they think, one must also be a true Malay.

To this end, they advocate making the non-Malays take Malay names, convert to Islam, and basically forcing them to adopt Malay traditions and customs. Even the Straits Chinese or Peranakan, who have been here longer than some of these so-called Malays, and are known for their adoption of several aspects of the Malay culture, never went as far.

This viewpoint was once supported by the government. After that 13 May 1969 racial riots in Kuala Lumpur, a raft of new policies, such as the controversial New Economic Policy were introduced. One of them was the National Culture Policy, which posited a national culture based on the culture of the "indigenous peoples", i.e. Malays, and "Islamic values".

Then in a spectacular flip-flop, the government reversed itself. In the early 1990s, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (a noted Malay radical in his youth) announced a new policy of Bangsa Malaysia (literally Malaysian race, but more accurately, Malaysian nation).

Now the country would focus on creating a Malaysian nation, a Malaysian identity. Gone was the policy of assimilating non-Malays into a Malay identity; gone was the assumption that only a Malay was Malaysian, and vice-versa.

But this policy has not necessarily found complete favour among Malaysians. There are a number of people who, I believe, revel in, for the lack of a better word, apartheid.

Apartheid basically means the separation and segregation of people — keeping them apart. In Malaysia, proponents of social apartheid believe that it is better for different communities to retain their own identities, as long as they call themselves Malaysian in addition to Malay, Chinese or whatever. (At this point, it might be wise to note that such a similar thinking was characteristic of the original apartheid regime in South Africa.)

This latter paradigm I have been referring to is normally called the "salad bowl" paradigm. A salad bowl is comprised of several different ingredients, but each one of these retains a separate identity.

What I am calling social apartheid is of course very different from the apartheid of South Africa; some might call it disingenuous to call this "salad bowl" thinking apartheid.

But I believe that the fundamental premises underlying both are really the same. In the end, they posit that it is better for different cultures to be kept apart, to retain different identities, rather than merging into a greater whole.

I honestly find the salad bowl model to be rather inferior to that of the "melting pot", where the ingredients are combined into a whole. They lose their individual character, but they combine with the other ingredients to produce a dish that is far greater than the sum of its individual parts.

People are quick to react at the implication that they can no longer identify themselves as "Chinese" or "Malay". They are emotionally attached to the idea of their race; they cannot accept that they ought to be Malaysian first.

However, these fears are predicated on the assumption that the melting pot ideal is identical to the fallacious idea of assimilation. They cannot understand that being Malaysian does not mean losing one's identity altogether.

Rather, an amalgamated Malaysian nation is one that adopts different cultures and brings them together into a melting pot that puts everything together.

A Malaysian does not celebrate just Hari Raya Aidilfitri, just Chinese New Year, just Deepavali, or just Hari Gawai. A Malaysian celebrates all of these festivals.

Likewise, a Malaysian does not eat just roti canai, just nasi lemak, just mee goreng, or just fish and chips. A Malaysian is comfortable eating any and all of these dishes.

A Malaysian does not watch only Malay movies, listen to only Cantonese pop, or read Tamil literature. A Malaysian is capable of appreciating all these art forms, and more.

That's basically what amalgamation is about. It's about disposing of our old conceptual framework of being individual Malays, Indians and Chinese and whatevers, and becoming Malaysian — being able to accept all these cultural practices as our own.

You might call this impossible or impractical, but it's already happening. It's happening everyday. It happens every time we turn on the radio and hum along to a tune from a Bollywood movie. It happens every time we step into a mamak shop.

Assimilation and apartheid might have their merits. But I believe that for Malaysia, the model that works best is amalgamation — coming together and accepting our vast array of societies, communities and cultures, combining them all into one united Malaysian nation. It's not impossible, because it's already happening. We are no longer Malay, Chinese or Indian. We are Malaysian.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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