Building A Coherent Malaysian Society Overseas
It's not very often that overseas Malaysians get to flaunt their Malaysianness conspicuously — it's hard to survive speaking in a Malaysian accent, and nobody cares if you miss eating roti canai. That's probably why there's a general consensus that the first Northeast Malaysia Forum in Harvard University this past weekend was a huge success, and not just because of our all-star panel of speakers ranging from Malaysiakini co-founder Premesh Chandran to Tony Fernandes.
Granted, I'm not the most impartial observer; I was on the steering committee for the forum, after all. However, I think it's quite safe to say that much like the previous Malaysian general election, in our case we got much more than we were hoping for. Some technical problems aside, our panel of speakers did a bang-up job of addressing their topics, and it seems like our almost 150 participants had a great time getting to know each other.
The reason we were not so optimistic in the run-up to the event was a bunch of continuing mishaps. Perhaps most problematic was scheduling the speakers; literally every time I opened my inbox in the month leading to the event, someone who had confirmed he could speak would suddenly be pulling out. Two weeks later, he'd be confirmed again. We were literally shuffling the schedule around on the day of the event itself. A major logistical issue also cropped up when it turned out Harvard had not informed its building manager that we would be using one of their halls for the conference. But these grey hair-inducing issues aside, there was also a larger concern that we would simply wind up being a "talk shop".
That's actually quite a valid concern. What can be more Malaysian than grousing about something and refusing to do anything about it at all? Having been to similar conferences where the participants did not really do anything after the event, I think we were all rather worried — a couple of my friends who weren't on the committee figured it would pretty much be a talk shop.
I was never too concerned about this. Am I glad we got participants to come up with concrete action plans? Yes, of course. But is that what the point of a gathering like this should be? I don't really know. My thinking is more along the lines of building up a shared Malaysian identity — bringing Malaysians of diverse backgrounds and mindsets together. That in itself is a worthy end, because it will prove to be the means to things far more substantial than anything we decide upon at the conference itself.
That is not to belittle the ideas we came up with over those two days in Boston. I'm particularly proud of my workshop group's proposal to develop a Cliffs Notes for the Federal Constitution. Certainly a conference like this can and should be an engine for brainstorming ideas we can implement to make things in Malaysia a little (or a lot) better. As the forum closed, the co-founder of the Malaysia Forum, Sim Tze Tzin pointed out examples of students who went on to change global history forever — people like Mahatma Gandhi and Sun Yat-Sen. Sim himself went on to become a state representative in Penang; the message was that we should look to putting our ideas in action whatever way we can.
Now, I like that message, and I have no quarrel with it. However, I think it would be more pragmatic to note that most of us who were there those two days in Boston will not go on to change the face of history forever, or at least not in a very direct manner. I think the more important facet of gatherings like these is that they not only inspire individuals to action, but that they can significantly shape the collective Malaysian society by developing a unique Malaysian identity.
The reason is simply that by virtue of being overseas Malaysians, we actually feel more Malaysian. We identify less with being West or East Malaysian, Malay, Chinese or Indian; we revel in our similar accents, we relish our distinct identity from the Americans. Since Sim is fond of historical parallels, one that would probably resonate is the case of Vietnam. Much like Malaysia today, pre-independence Vietnam was actually a very fragmented society. Geographical and class distinctions were extremely strong, almost to the same extent that racial divisions are salient in Malaysia today. It was by virtue of the fact that Vietnam's best and brightest studied in France that they developed a national identity. The men and women who left for French universities returned with a heightened sense of national identity, and a heretofore non-existent belief in a Vietnamese nationality.
I believe a similar potential exists for Malaysia in this day and age, as far as gatherings like NMF are concerned. When we bring a variety of Malaysians together in such an unusual context, we facilitate the erasing of geographical and ethnic differences. The end result is that nobody is too interested in which state you come from or what your skin colour is. But this raises an obvious counterpoint: we have been sending Malaysians overseas as far as anyone can remember. Why is it that we have not experienced this similar epiphany — why do we not see Malaysians coming home savouring this new sense of being Malaysian that they have discovered in their time overseas?
Obviously a full treatment of this question in this brief space is impossible, but if we are to address it briefly, I believe the answer actually lies in the trouble of segregating ourselves. When we do not bother to look out at the society we see around us overseas, we do not realise that we all share something very special as Malaysians. When we stick to our cliques — when we form little Malay and Chinese enclaves — of course our own preexisting perceptions of identity will find themselves reinforced. When we go beyond our cosy little cliques and look around — when a Malay looks at his Malaysian Chinese compatriots, and his English classmates — then only do we realise how much we all have in common, and how petty our differences appear.
You cannot realise how Malaysian you are until you have first looked at other Malaysians around you, and engaged with the foreign culture you are immersed in at large. In the US, this is something much easier to do, primarily because we do not have racially-divided Malaysian student organisations. In the United Kingdom, the UKEC seems to be making some headway here, but as I understand it, the UMNO and MCA clubs tend to be the more predominant social route. When you revel in your Malay or Chinese identity to this extent, and ignore other Malaysians around you, when you ignore your alien surroundings, you simply cannot realise how special being a Malaysian is, or how much we all share as Malaysians.
Just as importantly, once we have established this fundamental premise of Malaysianness, we can go on and engage in a productive dialogue. It's probably the definition of clichéd and corny, but one thing I've often encountered in debates amongst Malaysians is that we approach problems from a perspective unique to our own respective backgrounds, and don't try hard enough to understand the other side's perspective. It is quite difficult to debate an Islamic state when you cannot even agree on how to define it. To a Malay, the NEP connotes protection of his access to economic opportunity; to a non-Malay, the NEP connotes a direct insult to the notion that all Malaysian citizens deserve equal opportunities and respect. To praise or condemn "the NEP" is to offend one side or another. But it is easier to put these differences aside if we first build a rapport as Malaysians.
That is why I do not mind too much that we have so many "talk shops". In my mind, what is more important is not so much the fact that we get together to talk, but what we talk about. Do we end up talking with an eye to endless complaining, or do we want to talk with some sort of ultimate objective in mind? Do we want to talk cock, or do we want to talk about the ultimate future of our shared country? I look forward to future gatherings like the Northeast Malaysia Forum, not just for the ideas they will inspire, but for how they will influence our perception of what it means to be Malaysian, and how they will shape the state of public dialogue about Malaysia.