Uniting East and West Malaysia
A common thread in discussions of the Malaysian national identity is the differences between West and East Malaysia. Racial and religious issues are always complicated enough, but geographical issues — those are things often shoved under the carpet, despite the blatant inequality.
Ethnic and cultural minorities have always tended to get the short end of the stick in Malaysian politics. However, that is an assertion that can be plausibly be contested — the argument that the minorities have received fair treatment is a weak one, but it has been made nonetheless.
The same cannot be said for geographical minorities. When it comes to race and religion, the discrimination is burrowed away in ambiguous and ambiguously-interpreted portions of the Federal Constitution. Geographical disparities, on the other hand, are highlighted in the open.
That East Malaysians are treated differently from West Malaysians is very clear just from the way Parliamentary seats are delineated, giving the average East Malaysian more representation than the average West Malaysian. But the Constitution also delegates an immense amount of power to the East Malaysian states, power denied to the West Malaysian state governments. East Malaysia controls its own immigration policies (to the point that their states have the power to deny Malaysian citizens entry), and some autonomy in setting educational and religious policies.
To hear some East Malaysian politicians speak, you would think that they deserved even more than that. Every now and then, someone (whether from the opposition or the ruling party) chirps up, demanding, for example, that the federal government split its allocation of funds 50-50 between West and East Malaysia, never mind that West Malaysia has 13 states while East Malaysia has 2.
If you know anything about Malaysian politics, at this point you're thinking, Hey, wait a minute. And you're right. East Malaysians actually don't have substantial political power. Ever since merger in 1963, they've been treated unequally, and subtly discriminated against by the federal government. This is also difficult to deny.
For proof, it's not necessary to look much further than how we are brought up to think of Malaysia. Malaysia is usually defined in our heads as West Malaysia, plus that piece of land across the South China Sea. We learn East Malaysian history in our textbooks, and we see their cultures represented in the National Day parade, but we think of them as different from us - as not truly part of Malaysia. And if you've been paying attention, you might have realised that the language of the previous sentence already betrays my inculcated West Malaysian bias, the bias towards thinking that Malaysia = Peninsular Malaysia.
But what ticks me off is the incessant pandering of some West Malaysians towards East Malaysians. There is this tendency to accommodate ridiculous suggestions (e.g. the unequal distribution of federal aid along geographical lines, as opposed to, say, who might actually need the money, a division which would still favour East Malaysia), simply to make up for the poor treatment East Malaysians have received.
The solution to discrimination is never more discrimination. We know innately that you can't discriminate on grounds of ethnicity if you want to put a stop to such discrimination, so such geographical pandering is likewise useless if we truly want to integrate the two Malaysias.
What I find almost as silly is this notion that West and East Malaysia are irreparably cleaved, and that the East Malaysian states would be completely justified in seceding from the federation. While it is their prerogative if they decide to do so, I think that, as with racial divisions, we have overblown the extent to which we are divided.
One thing that has continually struck me in my interactions with East Malaysians is how similar we are. I look for the obvious differences which you would expect to be there, but there aren't that many. We have shared experiences; we grow up writing the same ridiculous Malay essays for our examination papers, we grow up learning the same languages, and when we talk, it is far too easy to forget that we grew up separated by the South China Sea, and by the discriminatory policies of the federal government.
Now, of course there are differences. But these differences are little more than the differences between different states in the federation. Each state has its own unique identity, but ultimately, one that does not take priority over the country and the nation. We eat slightly different foods, call things by slightly different names, and occasionally speak with slightly different accents, but we recognise that we all share the same experiences, the same fundamental things which define who we are.
I fully acknowledge that my views are clouded because I have only truly interacted with the East Malaysians of my generation. But that is reason to hope; if the older generations of Malaysians were never fully integrated, this does not seem to be true for the youth of Malaysia — and as we are reminded ever-so often, the youth are our future.
It is difficult to look at the policies of the federal government and not despair. But it is also difficult to look at the people who are the federation's future and not hope. I believe that if we really want to, we can set our differences aside in the interest of the Malaysian nation. I believe there is hope for a united Malaysia.