Yes, There is a Malaysia
One difficult thing about Malaysian politics is the frequent sense of fatalism and resignation to the idea that there cannot really be a Malaysian nation; that we, at least for the span of our natural lifetimes, cannot expect to see a united Malaysia, where we don't really care who is Malay, Chinese, Indian or lain-lain.
Being an overseas Malaysian tends to give you a different perspective on the issue of a Malaysian identity; you become more aware of certain things you might probably ignore back home.
One question I've frequently gotten from Americans about Malaysia is what Malaysian food is like — and I almost always stutter clumsily when trying to squeak out a response.
My first instinct is to jump to the usual explanation of our differences. "Oh," I'll say, "there isn't exactly a typical Malaysian food. Since we have three prominent ethnic groups, the dominant cuisine tends to be Malay, Chinese and Indian."
But this explanation just does not feel satisfying; it seems to be lacking something, somewhere. So I continue, "But in reality, nobody really cares what kind of food it is — we eat everything."
And that, I think, is what Malaysia really is about: acknowledging that yes, we all hail from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, but ultimately, we don't really treat each other as fundamentally different. We don't care about the race or religion of who first came up with nasi lemak, mi goreng, or roti canai — we just eat it.
Now, that ideal is obviously unrealistic. We all know that this is not really the case outside of a handful of cultural areas, such as food and music (whose guilty pleasures don't include a little of Cantopop and a bit of Bollywood?).
But it indicates, to me at least, that there is some sort of foundation to build on if we really want to work towards a unified Malaysian identity. I don't believe we can see a perfect Malaysian identity any time soon; it is complex enough trying to unify three races without things like regionalism and religion thrown into the mix. I don't think any country in the world has managed to achieve perfect unity amongst a plural population, though Switzerland might be one interesting exception.
But a measure of political unity? I really don't see why this cannot be accomplished within our lifetimes. We already don't give two hoots about race when it comes to filling our bellies and watching our movies; why should it be any different when it comes to casting our votes?
What's good for the Malay stomach is good for the Chinese stomach; what is pleasing to the Indian ear likewise is harmonious to the Dayak's. Fundamentally, we are all the same. So if the same things make you and me happy — if the same durian turns you and me on, while making everyone else vomit — why can't the same politicians and the same political parties make us happy?
I don't buy into this idea that policies which favour only one race at the expense of others are an intrinsically better way of running the country. We instinctively know this; we would not accept legislation that decrees the proportion of Malay, Chinese and Indian entertainment we must consume. So why must we accept legislation that sets quotas for the number of people from a certain race for university admissions, or accept policies which insist certain schools are intrinsically better for people of different racial backgrounds?
I am convinced that there is a Malaysian identity out there to be grasped, and that at a basic, fundamental level, we all know this. The only question is, do we accept and acknowledge this basic truth, or do we continue living in denial?